Income Tax Bill 22/5/18

May 22, 2018

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (12:29): Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak on these personal income tax changes proposed by the government in the Treasury Laws Amendment (Personal Income Tax Plan) Bill 2018. I think the first point that I would make is that the government can't be especially proud of what is supposed to be the centrepiece of their budget when they spend the short time that they're speaking about these bills devoted almost exclusively to the Labor Party. I mean, that really is a signal and a symbol of how those opposite go about these sorts of things. When the Minister for Revenue and Financial Services comes to the despatch box, it should be a triumphant moment. If they're actually proud of these tax changes they're proposing, it should be a moment of triumph; they should be prepared to speak about the policies and plans in this legislation that we're debating at the moment. Instead, we get the usual rubbish, frankly, about Labor's plan for tax reform. If they were proud of this package of bills, they wouldn't spend so much time talking about this side of the House.

The reason they don't speak about the merits or otherwise of their own legislation is that they know that the Australian people are onto them. The Australian people know that this government is trying to pull a big swiftie on the Australian people by trying to pretend all of a sudden that they've discovered that low- and middle-income earners in this country are under pressure. The Turnbull government, by proposing this quite modest tax relief for low- and middle-income earners, is hoping that that will buy some amnesia amongst the working people of this country. But the working people of this country know better. They know that the modest tax relief in these bills does not make up for penalty rates being cut, private health insurance going up, energy bills soaring while those opposite have their blues in the party room over the future of energy policy, pensions being cut, the energy supplement being cut and money being slashed from schools and hospitals. The Australian people are onto this government. They know that the modest tax relief being committed to in this legislation will not, does not and cannot make up for the chaos, the carnage and the cuts of the last five years and the four budgets which preceded this one.

If those opposite were truly committed to tax relief for low- and middle-income earners, they'd do what the member for McMahon is proposing in his amendment, which is to split the bill. If they genuinely wanted to help people on low and middle incomes in this country, they would split the bill. We on this side of the House have indicated that we are prepared to immediately support tax relief for working people—the 1 July 2018 changes. We have said for two weeks now—I have lost count the number of times I've said it, the member for McMahon has said it, the Leader of the Opposition has said it and everybody on our side has said it—that we are prepared to support those first stages of the tax relief in this legislation. Our message to those opposite in the government is: stop standing in the way of the tax relief that working Australians need and deserve. Stop holding the working people of this country hostage to your cynical political strategy in this parliament and your trickle-down economics.

It beggars belief for most reasonable-thinking people that this government is insisting that working people can't get tax relief in the near term unless we on this side of the House agree to an election—to a tax cut—

Mr Brian Mitchell: A what?

Dr CHALMERS: I'll happily agree to an election, too! I'll happily agree to an election as well, if we want to agree on that right now. I'm happy to fight an election on these tax changes because what the government is proposing and saying, by holding hostage working people in this country, is that only if we in the Labor Party support tax cuts two elections away which overwhelmingly favour the wealthiest people in this country—unless we support that seven years down the track—they're not prepared to give tax relief to working people. I think that calls into question just how genuine those opposite are about the tax cuts that are being proposed here for people on low and middle incomes. That's how absurd this is.

So I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically support the amendment moved by the member for McMahon because if we split the bills we can vote as one in this place and give working Australians the tax relief they need and deserve. We can do that right now if they split the bill. We call on them to do so, and if they won't do it here—obviously it will get through this place—then we will call on them to split the bill in the Senate as well, after the committee process is complete. Because that's how we can agree on some near-term tax relief for people who've been doing it too hard for too long. It's frustrating, but not especially surprising, if we're honest, that those opposite are playing these games with the household budgets of people who work and struggle in this country.

I won't go through the elements of the bill in any detail, except to say, of course, that there are multiple stages of tax changes being proposed. As I said, we support the 1 July changes; we're not wild about the third wave of changes, which come in seven years down the track, after two more elections; and we will consider the second stage of tax cuts. If we are to consider the middle stages of the tax cuts, it's an imperative that the government tell us how much those middle stages cost. We've asked time and time again from this dispatch box. The Treasurer and the Prime Minister have gone to that dispatch box and not been able to answer a simple question, which is: 'What are the itemised costs of the three stages of tax changes that you're proposing in this legislation?' I don't know about others, but I think it's a bit much to ask somebody to buy something when they don't know what the cost of it is. We're being responsible; we're insisting on knowing how much that middle stage costs before we come to a view on it. Again, I think that most reasonable-thinking, objective people would consider that to be fair enough.

One of the reasons we don't like the final stage of the tax changes in this legislation—and true to form, frankly, from those opposite—is that we know it overwhelmingly, when you take the whole package together, favours the wealthiest Australians. That would be true to form, because we have a government which goes to the wall to defend the biggest tax concessions going to those who need them least, and so this is really of a piece with their behaviour so far. Certainly, the central aspects of their budgeting since that horror 2014 budget have been to take money out of schools, hospitals and the pockets of pensioners and people on low and middle incomes and redistribute it in the wrong direction, towards the people who need it least in our community. That's really what this tax package, taken in its entirety, is all about.

If people don't want to take the Labor Party's word for it, that's fine. Three of the most credible institutions in this country—NATSEM, the ANU and the Grattan Institute—have all had a good look at this package of tax proposals and concluded without any doubt that it overwhelmingly favours the wealthiest people in our community. At a time when we've got record net debt, which has doubled since those opposite came to office—we've got gross debt of over half-a-trillion dollars every year for the next 10 years—it's very unfair to prioritise the top end of town with tax relief. It's also unaffordable and unwise when we've got the budget still in not especially good nick despite terrific global conditions. NATSEM, ANU, the Grattan Institute and others have all made that conclusion, and that is our conclusion too.

When you look at the package in its entirety, especially that final stage, it is very unfair to prioritise people who need tax relief the least. As I said, that is unfortunately of a piece with so much of what those opposite have proposed over the last five years of being in government. I think that's why the community does not support the budget, because it is so out of whack and so out of touch with the nation's values and priorities. Those opposite like to pursue this trickle-down agenda, which didn't work in the eighties and won't work in 2018. It doesn't accord with what people want to see from their national government. They want to see investment in hospitals and schools, the things that we truly value as a community. They want to see, when there is tax relief to be provided, people who work and struggle prioritised. That's what the nation wants to see and that is what Labor wants to see as well.

When we've got a budget delivered in the best global conditions for a decade—we've had $40 billion in extra taxes and charges land at the Treasurer's feet—the Australian people, with some justification, cannot work out why it is that with all that extra money rolling through the door we've still got record debt, twice what they inherited from Labor, and we've still got cuts to hospitals, schools, pensions, the energy supplement, family payments and others. The reason why the budget's not in especially good nick despite all that money rolling in the door is that those opposite continue to insist on defending tax concessions for those who need them least—tax cuts for the top end of town, including $80 billion for multinationals and the four big banks. That, again, does not accord with what the nation wants from its federal government.

The budget and these tax proposals in particular fail the fairness test. They also fail the responsibility test. It's as if those opposite didn't pay any attention when they saw the mistakes of the later Howard and Costello years, when there were those big income tax cuts which were built on the back of a temporary spike in revenue and created a structural problem in the budget. We want to make sure that we don't go down that path again. We've seen that movie before. We don't like how it ends. We don't want to see a sequel to that.

To ask the parliament to support big tax cuts for the wealthiest Australians seven years down the track after two more elections strikes me as a terribly irresponsible thing to do. We don't know what condition the budget will be in in seven years. We don't know what condition global and domestic economies will be in in seven years. And there is no rush to come to a conclusion on those changes, especially when we could split the bill up. We could have a vote. Labor and Liberal would vote together for some tax relief for people on low and middle incomes.

And then Labor, of course, propose to do more for 10 million working Australians with our bigger and fairer plan for tax relief, which the Leader of the Opposition announced from this dispatch box two Thursdays ago. We're in a position to offer that bigger and fairer tax relief for working people because we have prioritised them. We've made them our highest priority in our budget, unlike those opposite, who have made the highest priority $17 billion to the big banks, of which the Commonwealth Bank will get the lion's share. That's their priority over there. Their priority over there is people earning over a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year.

On this side of the House, very proudly—and I know that the member for Bendigo is in this camp too—we are here to represent working people. That is the purpose we come here for. Our reason for being is to represent people who work and struggle in this country. That's why our tax relief plan—the bigger, fairer tax cuts for working people—prioritises them over everybody else. Those opposite can't make the same claim. They always come in here to defend the interests of the top end of town at the expense of middle Australia, and that cannot continue.

We've made the room in our budget by saying we wouldn't give the tax cuts to the biggest businesses. We've made the room in the budget by cracking down on some of those tax loopholes which are growing, eating up a bigger proportion of the budget as the years go on. We've taken some political heat for some of the announcements that we've made. Again, the Minister for Revenue and Financial Services spent almost all of her contribution talking about them rather than the positives of her own plan. But we've done that because we wanted to prioritise people who, more than others, need a bit of relief in the household budget. We've taken those difficult decisions, and I think the Australian people are prepared to accept them.

Our tax relief also won't come at the cost of our hospitals and schools—again, another claim that those opposite are unable to make. They've pulled so much money out of our local hospitals and our local schools; TAFE's been hollowed out; big money has been taken out of universities—all to shovel in the direction of the biggest businesses and the wealthiest taxpayers in this country. Again, that is terribly out of whack with the nation's priorities and the nation's values. Unlike those opposite, we are prepared to speak about the positives of our plan to give 10 million workers more tax relief by not giving tax relief to those who need it least.

It's very unfortunate, really, that the government can spend so much money in their budget and still not be prepared to defend it from the dispatch box. They want to talk about Labor. We're happy to talk about our policies and plans because we take our responsibilities as the alternative government very seriously. That means being fairer with the budget and more responsible as well. Our approach to tax, which is to support tax cuts for working Australians over everybody else, is fairer and more responsible. If the government could make a claim like that, they would be more in touch with what the nation expects, wants and deserves from them.