Company tax speech

14 September 2017

DR CHALMERS (Rankin) (11:26): It's my privilege to follow the member for Lyons, in particular, who I thought made a very characteristically useful and considered contribution a little while ago. Even with the member who just spoke, there were parts of what he said—about trade in particular but other things as well—on which I find common ground. But we, on this side, obviously oppose this bill that we're talking about now, for the reasons that have been outlined so well by the member for Lyons, the member for McMahon and indeed all of the speakers on this side of the House.

If you were looking for one bill to sum up, in one piece of legislation, the approach of those opposite, this is it. In this one bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Enterprise Tax Plan No. 2) Bill 2017, we have all of the warped priorities, all of the Thatcherite fantasy, all of the trickle-down economics, and all of the wasted money and the fiscal vandalism which have characterised the last four years, and all of the showering of largesse on the top end of town while lecturing middle Australia about debt and deficit disasters. This is a $65 billion ram raid on the budget, which is to be handed directly to multinational corporations and the big four banks at the expense of people who work and who struggle in this country.

Those in this government—if you can believe it—through their policies tell us that they believe that multinational corporations pay too much tax, that people under $87,000 a year pay too little tax and that people get paid too much to work on Sundays. That is the summary of the economic policy of those opposite in this Turnbull government. You couldn't make this stuff up. In their arrogance, they want the Australian people to believe that they can't find $3.8 billion for universities, but they can find $65 billion for big companies in this country; they can't find a billion dollars to maintain the pensioner energy supplement, but they can find $65 billion to give to big business; they can't find the $17 billion for schools; and they can't find the $2.2 billion for GPs and allied health, or the $3 billion for apprentices and TAFE and vocational education, or the $1.6 billion they're cutting out of infrastructure, or the $500 million they're cutting out of the Indigenous Affairs portfolio, or the $300 million they're cutting out of dental, or the $171 million they're cutting from hospital services for veterans, or the $44 million a year they're cutting from homelessness funding.

They can't find any of that; that's too hard to find. That's all too expensive, but they can find $65 billion to give to big business in Australia, and that's what this bill is all about. It does say it all about those opposite; it ticks every box. It's unfair, for the reasons I've just outlined. It's unwise because it won't deliver the growth that we need in this country, the right kind of growth; indeed, it won't deliver much growth at all. And it's unaffordable, particularly at a time when those opposite have made such a mess of the budget that we have record gross debt in this country—high debt, growing, not a peak in sight—under those opposite, and they want to pretend that they are superior economic managers. There's never been more debt on the Commonwealth budget than there is today, and it's growing and there's no peak in sight.

We oppose this bill because, when we have weak growth, this is not the answer. We oppose this bill because, when we have skyrocketing debt, this fiscal vandalism will make the situation worse, not better. We oppose this bill because, when we have more and more people feeling, with some justification, that the rules of the economy are written to benefit others at their expense, this is a recipe for more division in our economy and in our society.

Let me go to some of the details of the claims that those opposite make. The first one, of course, is that this is the only way that we can get growth in our economy. When the government says that, it reminds me of that Johnny Lee song we were talking about before. The member for Herbert and the member for Lindsay were talking about that Johnny Lee song, which talks about 'lookin' for love in all the wrong places'. This government is looking for economic growth in all of the wrong places. There's a lyric in that song which reminds me of the Treasurer. Johnny Lee sings:

Playin' a fools game hopin' to win;

and tellin' those sweet lies and losin' again.

That is the best summary of the economic approach from those opposite and the commentary from the Treasurer about economic growth. This is a government looking for growth in all the wrong places.

They want you to believe that the only way to grow the economy is to hand tens of billions of dollars to multinational corporations—a lot of that will go overseas—or to the big four banks, which get about $10 billion of that $65 billion, or by letting the wealthiest Australians choose how much tax they pay via trusts or by giving the biggest tax concessions to those who need them least. The government will have you believe that that's the only way to grow the economy. They just don't get it.

We understand on this side of the House—all of us do—that growth comes from working people having the money to spend and invest and from us deploying tax dollars in an intelligent way where they can do the most good to boost productivity and boost inclusive growth in our economy. Growth comes from giving people a stake in the growth that they help create, rewarding their efforts and their enterprise, ensuring people can participate meaningfully in our economy and in our society. It does not come from lower wages or higher taxes on working people or these tax cuts that we're discussing in this bill. Those opposite are from an alternative universe, where they think that, if you give $10 billion to four banks, to four companies, a $10 billion tax cut, miraculously, those banks will employ more people. The same goes for multinational corporations, where a lot of that tax cut benefit goes overseas.

We do have very serious challenges in our economy, and key among those is the growth challenge. We are all in the car for the right kind of economic growth, but in the national accounts in the last week or so we had some very disturbing figures that showed that we have weak annual growth, falling living standards and flatlining wages—all in that one data release from the ABS. We have annual growth with a one in front of it. The Treasurer wanders around expecting a pat on the back and a round of applause for annual growth with a one in front of it—1.8 per cent. Our economic growth over the year is lower than in Canada, the USA or New Zealand. It's lower than the OECD average. It's been less than two per cent annually for three of the last four quarters. That is the worst result since the global financial crisis.

Real net national disposable income per capita, the best measure of living standards, fell 1.4 per cent in the last quarter. Living standards are going backwards, and wages are flatlining. Average compensation per employee fell 0.1 per cent in the last quarter. Wages went backwards in the most recent national accounts. And economic growth is obviously still well below what we need to cut unemployment, put upward pressure on wages and boost demand in the economy.

Beyond those troubling national accounts figures, the workers' share of national income is at record lows and underemployment is at record highs. I'm conscious that a new set of data has come out while I've been on my feet, which I'll read with interest, but the trend for underemployment has been horrible: there has been record underemployment. People who need more work or more hours at work can't find them. The people-facing part of the economy is suffering. This bill and the government's approach to the economy will turbocharge those challenges, not address them. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

On the government's own figures about growth, the growth dividend from this bill we are discussing today—the $65 billion tax cut for big business—will be negligible at best: one per cent over 20 years. We're talking about one per cent in 20 years time. Those opposite go on and on about how this is crucial, this is the key, this is the secret sauce when it comes to getting growth in this economy. We are talking one per cent in 20 years. That's $2 a day in wages per person in 20 years time, on the Treasury modelling. That is what we're talking about here. This is their one-point plan. That will be the miraculous outcome of this one-point plan—so many bucks for so little bang.

The tax cuts in this bill are unfair for the reasons I've described and are unwise. They won't get the growth we need and they're also unaffordable. This is a $65 billion ram-raid on the budget. It's the single biggest piece of fiscal vandalism of the Abbott-Turnbull government. We have this mess in the budget, despite the fact that the government is actually raising something like $77 billion more in taxes in 2017-18 than was raised in 2012-13, the last year of the Labor government. Tax to GDP, which is the measure that we rely on to see how much tax is being paid in the economy, is higher for every year in the forward estimates in the most recent budget than it was in any year under the former Labor government. This government is taxing more than the former Labor government did and yet still we've got net debt at record levels for the next two years. We've got a deficit for this year 10 times bigger than was predicted in Joe Hockey's first budget. We've got half a trillion dollars in gross debt. That is the first time that has ever happened in Australian history: half a trillion dollars in gross debt! And gross debt doesn't even peak. It blows out to $725 billion over the medium term with no peak in sight. Gross debt continues to rise. The interest bill is about $5.5 billion, or $220 for every man, woman and child in this country. The coalition is racking up gross debt $1.4 billion a month faster than Labor, in good global economic conditions. We racked up debts lower than this government during a global financial crisis. Think about that. Debt is being racked up faster when we've got pretty good global conditions now than it was in the life of the former Labor government, which dealt with—successfully, I'm proud to say—the biggest synchronised downturn in the global economy since the 1930s. Think about that. It is a pretty extraordinary achievement for those opposite to rack up debt faster in good conditions than Australia did during the global financial crisis.

There is a whole range of numbers which go to the core of the incompetence of those opposite and the hypocrisy of lecturing people about debt and deficit disasters—all of those sorts of things—at the same time that, on their watch, debt and deficit have blown out substantially across all of those measures. No matter which way you carve it, the numbers don't lie. Gross debt, net debt, debt per person—on all of these measures, those opposite have made a mess of the budget. They would like us to pretend that handing $65 billion to multinational corporations and the big four banks in Australia will somehow be the answer to all of our challenges, when we've got anaemic growth and sky rocketing debt and deficit. This bill will be part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Under this government, you can understand why more and more Australians feel deeply frustrated that, no matter how hard they work, the economy doesn't work for them. They just can't get ahead no matter how hard they work. They do the right thing and try and provide for their families but they feel like the rules of the economy—with some justification—are written to benefit somebody else at their expense.

On this side of the House, we want the rules of the economy to accord with our values: we grow strongest when we grow together; if you work hard, you should be rewarded for it; if you fall behind or fall down, we will be there to help you up. That is a summary of the economic approach this side of the House takes to the Australian economy. That's why we have been announcing all these policies.

I give credit to the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Treasurer, the shadow Assistant Treasurer and all of the colleagues. The policies that we've been announcing are so important to ensuring that the rules of the economy accord with our values. They are part of a larger purpose: to ensure that we can have inclusive growth, that we can have reward for effort in this country, and we can have a decent social safety net for those who fall down or fall behind.

The previous speaker, the member for Maranoa, and indeed a number of the speakers on that side of the House, are fond of saying in the media that our position on handing $65 billion to multinationals and the big four banks is somehow based on some kind of politics of envy or some kind of class war. But that argument, the argument they put over and over and over again, rests on a really tired, old, dishonest absurdity that pretends that the only way to maintain cohesion in this country is to give the biggest tax breaks to those who need them least or pay people less to work on weekends or give tax cuts to the top and tax hikes to the bottom or to shower largesse on the people who need it least in our economy. Theirs is a recipe for more division. It's damaging to the budget, to the economy and to society.

It's far more divisive to hack at the safety net or let the wealthiest people choose how much tax to pay or hand over tens of billions of dollars in company tax cuts at the same time as they lecture middle Australia about tightening their belts. This country is looking for economic growth. That growth will be found in decent incomes so that people can save and invest and provide for their families and in a new government which prioritises the actual drivers of growth and productivity and which recognises that the best growth in this country is people-powered and from the bottom up. Growth won't be found in this $65 billion tax cut or in the trickle-down economics that it represents.