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Don't axe the mining tax - it will build our future

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 15 Jul 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (17:48):  Once again we stand here having another go at repealing the MRRT, the minerals resource rent tax, or mining tax, as everybody knows it. Once again we have the interesting spectacle of a government telling us, on the one hand, that they have handed down a stinking budget because we have to have 'structural reform'. That was certainly a phrase that was being used over and over again; that was certainly one of the speaking notes that the Treasurer had at the time of introducing the budget, as did the finance minister. We kept hearing 'Australia needs structural reform'. That was an excuse, I suppose, to explain a budget that a huge proportion of Australians, including coalition voters, know and understand is fundamentally unfair and goes against the idea that in Australia we all pay according to our ability to pay, that we look after the most disadvantaged in our society and do not expect them to make the greatest contribution to the finances of the country when other people who are receiving much higher incomes and doing much better from the way the economy is structured get off scot-free.

So we have this government constantly telling us that we have to have structural reform. Many of us can see that we need to have a budgetary system in this country where our revenue is adequate to meet the needs that as a community, as a society, we agree must be met. They are needs such as having a good quality education system so that no matter where anyone lives in Australia, no matter where a child grows up, no matter the background of their family, no matter the income of their parents, no matter the social background of the child and no matter in what region they live, we can guarantee they will receive a high-quality education. That is a need that we should be able to meet as a decent, civilised community and one of the most wealthy societies on the planet. So there is structural reform to have revenue that can meet that need.

We also have an understanding that in Australia we have a system of health care that does not penalise those people who do not have as many means as others. Traditionally in Australia we have not had a system where if you are poor you cannot get health care and if you are rich you can buy the best quality care in the world. We have had an agreement-a social contract, if you like-that we will look after everyone in Australia and we will have a reasonable understanding and security that if we have health needs they can be met. There are other areas of the social contract in Australia. We have traditionally agreed that if people have mental health needs they will be able to be met and they will be looked after. If people through some accident or issue that has occurred, whether it is a disability or they have become unemployed, they will be looked after. We will make sure that nobody in Australia starves, that people have opportunities to participate in the community and the workforce. Of course, if we are going to have that quality, if we are going to have that civilised structure in this society, we have to be able to pay for it, so certainly the Australian Greens say that we need to look at the revenue streams that are available to meet those needs that we have as a community. That is the sort of structural reform that the Australian Greens are looking at.

We have a government saying that we need structural reform. Yet, if we look at what is happening across the legislative agenda this week, we have the government intent on repealing a price on pollution which is actually bringing in revenue but they are determined to repeal that.

And here we are today discussing the repeal of legislation that could actually be bringing in revenue for the country to pay for those other needs that we have. We know the result of repealing this act, if they are able to do so, means taking funding away from other important aspects of Australian services, and I will go into those in a minute.

What we have here is a government that is not really saying we need structural reform. This government is saying we need to make sure that we look after some people in society, and those people would be the 'expensive others'. That is what we have seen in the budget. It is illogical. What we are being asked to do today is illogical. It is a short-sighted government that is basically looking after those who are already doing very well from the way our economy is structured.

The Australian Greens supported the Henry tax review and the recommendations from that review, which included imposing a tax on mining. We particularly welcomed the tax in its original inception because it was designed to properly tax the large profits that were being made by mining companies on the basis of mining resources, which are finite-once mined, they will never be there again-and which are shared. They are owned and shared by the whole Australian population. Along with the Henry tax review recommendations, we thought it was pretty logical that if there are particular organisations that are going to make a lot of money out of mining and exploiting these resources, then it is only fair that a fair share of the profits from those resources come back to the Australian population to meet those needs-the health, the education, the mental health needs that I talked about a bit earlier.

We did not get the original mining tax-the resource super profits tax that was designed to make sure that those large profits were properly taxed-because we had confected hysteria from the mining industry. We had a sense that for some reason the mining companies here would decamp to some other nirvana, that they would go somewhere else where they could mine and exploit the resources there without any kinds of constraints at all. There was this threat of sovereign risk, which I do not think most people ever took seriously. Instead of that, we had this huge advertising campaign with a huge amount of money invested into it to protect those who had an interest in keeping the status quo. Ultimately that tax was not pursued, so we ended up with this mining resource rent tax-MRRT-which was a pallid version of the original tax as envisaged by the Henry review. The Greens ultimately supported the legislation that become the act that is intended to be repealed under this particular bill, but we have always said that it should be strengthened. The mining resource rent tax should be strengthened rather than be abolished.

It is clear experts consider that a mining tax is vital for properly distributing the national gains that are associated with mining because this country's finite resources do belong to all of us. We do know they are finite and we do know they have been there for aeons, but once dug up and shipped away they are gone forever; they are no longer for our benefit and they are no longer for the benefit of future Australians. And the wealth that is inherent in those resources is gone as well, so it is absolutely imperative when we do exploit those resources that there is a lasting impact or benefit for the Australian people. Instead of repealing the mining tax, the Australian Greens say the government should broaden it to include all minerals. This particular bill advantages those companies that do not mine the resources that are currently being taxed. Instead of strengthening the MRRT, the government is proposing this repeal bill which will then further advantage big companies. Companies like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata-worth more than $200 billion together-will be the ones who will benefit from the passage of this repeal bill.

Who won't benefit? Who will suffer? Who will pay the price of this determination to repeal a somewhat inadequate attempt to gain income or tax-which is at least an attempt to gain something-from the shared resources that we have? Who will pay the price? That will be millions of households, up to 10 million workers and hundreds of thousands of small businesses. The losers from this package are workers with compulsory superannuation contributions, households with children, and small businesses. Rather than cutting or reducing the taxes paid by a small number of exceedingly wealthy mining companies, most of whom are foreign owned-most of those profits ultimately end up overseas in the hands of overseas investors rather than coming back to benefit Australians who owned the resources in the first place-the government should be enhancing the tax to raise revenue.

An optimal tax system in Australia would ensure that Australians can share fairly in the rich mineral wealth that we commonly own. But this legislation is a shadow of what it previously was, and the repeal will mean that it will no longer exist at all. The current MRRT contains an effective tax rate of only 22½ per cent rather than the 40 per cent that was originally proposed. As well as that, it currently fails to tax profits on gold, silver, diamonds, uranium, rare earths, nickel, copper, zinc and bauxite-and that is an omission. As I have said, isn't it ironic that those who argued about the inadequacy of the current act, which is being sought to be repealed, are very much those who were part of the campaign to weaken the original manifestation of this act. On the one hand the coalition were never in favour of having a fair tax on our shared mineral resources. On the other hand, when ultimately backing the companies that were running the campaign against the original bill-it was weakened; the minerals resource rent tax has not brought in as much revenue as it should have-they are now decrying the fact that it does not bring in enough revenue. I find that really ironic.

I make the point again: our mineral resources are finite, non-renewable and can only be dug up once. The resulting wealth that we do have from exploiting those resources must be invested in Australia's future: in education, in health and in industries that will transition us into the economy of the future. We remain, in the Australian Greens, unchanged in our position that the mining tax should be strengthened rather than be abolished. We should be investing the revenue in things that are genuine and needs based, things like true education reform so that we can guarantee that every child in Australia, no matter where they live and no matter what their background, can have a high quality education.

And that then is an investment in future productivity and our future economy as well as investing in the social cohesion that comes about through people being able to reach their true potential in a community.

We should also be investing in a fairer legal system. We should also be transforming the framework for mental health service delivery in Australia, which is clearly very inadequate to meet the needs of the many, many Australians who suffer poor mental health.

I am going to talk a bit about education. Imagine what we could do if we had structural reform so that those in Australia who can afford to pay more pay their fair share. We could have great schools for every kid. The Gonski review of school funding told us so much about how we could move from the current funding system to one where every child could have access to a high-quality education. Despite their promises and supposedly being on a unity ticket on school funding before the federal election, we have the coalition government, on the basis of not being able to afford to pay for the investment that the Gonski review indicated that we absolutely need in Australia, ripping the fifth and sixth years of the Gonski funding out of the budget. And why? Because we do not have enough revenue. And yet here we have a government that is deliberately wanting to repeal a source of revenue that is arguably fair because it is on the basis of shared resources. The bulk of the funding under the fifth and sixth years of the Gonski plan was set to flow to schools in those years. Many schools will never reach the school resource standard that was designed to bring every child up to the possibility of having an education that would allow them to reach their potential. This is so much more than just a broken promise that was made by the coalition before the election. It shattered the faith of many people who had actually pinned their hopes on the idea that we could transform what is an inequitable funding system-and has been for some time in Australia-and what that would mean for their students, for their kids and for their schools.

The futures of our young people depend on the kinds of decisions that we make now. Being in government means having to make decisions and having a budget means having to make decisions about how you raise revenue and what you do with the revenue that you raise. A country and a government can be judged by the values that are inherent in that decision-making process. Here we have a government that is clearly saying: 'We do not believe that those who are making large profits from our shared resources should bear their fair share to make sure that those other needs in the community are met: the ability to go to a doctor when you need to without having to make a co-contribution, the ability to go to a school and have a good education. We do not believe that those things are valuable. They are not decisions that we are going to make, and we are not going to facilitate those kinds of services.' This government will be judged harshly, and they are being judged harshly now by the Australian population. But they will also be judged harshly by future Australians for the implications that flow on from the decisions that they are making today.

Another area of funding that could use proper revenue raised under structural reform would be for legal affairs. There is no doubt that the state of access to justice in Australia is in crisis. There is clear evidence across Australia that many, many people are failed by a costly and inaccessible legal system. Increasing numbers of Australians are not able to get their problems resolved and their legal needs met in Australia's legal system at the moment. Justice is very often out of reach for some of our most vulnerable Australians including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, unemployed people, single parents and people on low incomes. As well as that, increasingly, there are people on middle incomes who are just not able to canvass the possibility of having their legal issues and their problems resolved because the law is out of reach of those people.

We have the Attorney-General citing a limited funding bucket-so we have to make hard decisions-as the reason that he wants to restrict community legal centres and other organisations providing legal assistance to vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians. He wants them to move away from advocacy and instead to look at systemic issues and to focus only on so-called front-line services. It is a budget measure because he acknowledges that there is not sufficient revenue coming into the budget to meet those important legal needs. Of course there is great economic efficiency in those experts who are dealing at the coalface with those sorts of particular systemic issues being able to advocate and bring their experience and their knowledge to bear for law reform rather than dealing on a one-to-one basis with people. So that is a particularly effective and efficient way to fight injustice and ensure that we have proper law reform in Australia. But, because of the government's failure, again, to have true structural reform to make sure that we actually have revenue coming from appropriate places in Australia-like reducing fossil fuel subsidies, like having proper and effective mining taxes on the profits that people make from exploiting Australia's resources-the Attorney-General says we do not have adequate funding to serve the needs of the most disadvantaged Australians. As a result, we have great legal injustice occurring every day.

Of course, restricting an organisations ability to do advocacy is not only an economic decision but also always ideological. In fact, it is a decision where we do not necessarily want to hear the message that there needs to be law reform if that is something that the government is not willing to take up. It is much easier to try to silence those critics and those who say we do need to have systemic change in Australia to make sure that some people are not on a daily basis affected badly by laws that might benefit those who are better off in Australia. So it is actually an ideological position as well.

We have Indigenous Australians in Australia who are grossly over represented in prison populations, and the organisations providing their legal assistance are also being defunded and having reduced funding. Indeed, I met with representatives of Aboriginal family violence prevention programs, those who give advice and assistance to some of the most vulnerable Australians in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, who are struggling with the fact that they will be losing employees from their workplaces. In some cases they will be closing services and they will not be able to deliver the services that they need to deliver.

Indeed, it is ludicrous to suggest that front-line services will not be affected, because very clearly from the stories that I have heard today, they will be individual people on the ground who will bear the brunt of that. There will be, arguably, more people who will be subject to family violence and there will certainly be more Aboriginal Australians incarcerated. It is already a shameful record in Australia. We, arguably, have some of the most imprisoned peoples in the world.

We also have the defunding of environmental defender's offices across Australia-again, because of the argument that there isn't sufficient money. But again, of course, we know that that is ideological.

I stand here to oppose the repeal of the MRRT-the mining tax-because I say that we need to recognise that we do need to have adequate revenue to meet the needs of the Australian community. It is hard to argue that it is not appropriate to have a fair tax, with wealthy mining companies paying their fair share for our shared finite resources. (Time expired)

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