Corporate tax cuts, road safety and the fundamentally important role of surf lifesaving clubs

February 14, 2018

 I rise proudly to make a contribution on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2017-2018. I want to talk about a number of issues today, but I'll start with a couple of local issues that are very close to the hearts of my constituents in Shortland. These issues are road safety, after what has been a terrible summer, and the fundamentally important role of surf lifesaving clubs in Shortland and in all communities around Australia.

All of us would be aware of the appalling road statistics over the summer and last year. They make for grim reading. In the region I represent, 74 people died on the road last year, an increase of 22 per cent compared to the previous two years. This is a truly alarming statistic. Hundreds if not thousands of the victims' families and friends in local communities will be devastated by these senseless deaths. A central role the Commonwealth can play is to support local governments to enhance road safety. It is therefore unconscionable that one of the first acts of the coalition government was to cut $1 billion in Commonwealth assistance to local governments. That, in turn, forced councils to cut spending on roads, which are often their largest budget item.

Huge cuts to funding such as these have had an impact in the real world. In our local communities, some Liberal and National MPs who purport to represent regional Australia should hang their heads in shame after voting for these cuts. One of the most successful programs in reducing fatalities is the Black Spot Program. The coalition has totally neglected this program. In the first three budgets, they committed $220 million to this program. However, budget documents show they have only spent $105 million, less than half what they promised. Not properly funding an initiative which works after committing to do so is so typical of this government. Labor's approach to road safety is in stark contrast to the coalition's. Our approach to combatting the shocking road toll involves building better roads, thoroughly training learner drivers and manufacturing safer vehicles. We have a proud legacy regarding road safety. We more than doubled the Commonwealth's road budget, we launched the keys2drive program for learner drivers, and we introducing tougher penalties for importers and Australian companies who make unsafe trailers and caravans.

They are just a few examples of what a government committed to enhancing road safety can achieve, and, quite frankly, it appals me when those on the other side brag about cutting and attacking the Safe Roads program. This program was designed to stop the race to the bottom amongst truck drivers that compelled them to cut corners and drive for too long, therefore leading to greater fatigue, which leads to a greater number of accidents. In order to save money and compete, they cut corners by not making the necessary maintenance on their vehicles. This was a race to the bottom that Safe Roads was designed to counter. When those opposite brag about abolishing Safe Roads, they are bragging about making truck drivers drive longer and harder and making our roads less safe. I don't say that lightly, because that's a big claim. But, if you look at the foundations of Safe Roads, that is exactly what they are doing.

This is also a time to reflect on the summer just gone. The electorate of Shortland is home to some of the finest beaches in Australia or, indeed, around the world. All of us in this place who represent coastal communities are rightly proud of our beaches. They are a feature of who we are and the way we live our lives. Crucial to our love of the beach is the role of surf lifesaving clubs and the role that surf lifesavers play in contributing to our communities and keeping us safe at the beach. My local surf clubs have had a very hectic start to the year. Indeed, in just two days in early January, surf lifesavers rescued 70 people from the surf at Redhead Beach alone. There were actually 103 rescues in the first two weeks of January at Redhead Beach, compared to just four in the first fortnight last year. This demonstrates just how vital our lifesavers are and how important it is for all of us to be conscious of water safety. I will take this opportunity to recognise the five surf lifesaving clubs in my electorate: Redhead, Swansea Belmont, Caves Beach, Catherine Hill Bay and The Lakes. I pay tribute to the thousands of community minded volunteers who make up these clubs. Thank you for keeping us safe over summer and in the months ahead.

This bill gives me an opportunity to reflect on some of the great priorities that the people of Shortland have. There can be no greater priority than the economic advancement of our people. I have the honour of representing the community of Windale. It is a fine community that, too often, has been accused and maligned just because it happens to be the poorest community in all of New South Wales. It faces grave challenges, like the rest of my electorate. It faces challenges of economic isolation, a failure to invest in education and a failure to provide the necessary support for families and seniors. And all this is driven by the failure of successive governments to invest in the community.

There can be no greater example of this than the government's cut to needs-based funding of schools in their mislabelled 'Gonski 2.0', a policy that was an attack on the needs-based funding model—a policy that cut funding to my schools. Schools in Shortland have suffered an $18 million cut in this year alone because of this government's breach of its promise to implement the full Gonski funding model. This is having a concrete impact, because the early years of needs-based funding were having a great impact in my community. St Pius X Primary School in Windale is the poorest school in all of New South Wales. Their early-years Gonski funding allowed them to put on two more teachers for a school of only 50 students. Imagine that—two more teachers in a school of 50! This was having great results. Warners Bay High School was allocating its early-years funding to additional literacy and numeracy teachers, aiming to lift the literacy and numeracy of the lowest-performing 25 per cent of students so that they didn't fall behind in years 7 and 8 and then have to catch up in years 9, 10, 11 and 12, which is very hard to do. Another school—Lake Munmorah Public School—had invested its money in improving teacher quality through adopting cutting-edge teacher training programs, which were having a direct impact on outcomes in that school. I could go on. This has all been placed in jeopardy because of this government's failure to honour its promise of the 2013 election to implement the full needs-based funding, a failure that has meant an $18 million cut to schools in my electorate in one year alone.

Another attack on education is the higher education funding model announced by the government. This is a funding model that places more and more pressure on my local university, the University of Newcastle—a fine institution. It's probably the best engineering university in Australia, based on global rankings, and it's a university that trains more Indigenous doctors than the rest of the nation combined. It trained the first Indigenous surgeon. This is a uni where 50 per cent of students do not come through the traditional HSC path. Some are later in life retrainees from our manufacturing and mining industries. Often they're people who've had to leave school for a variety of reasons and have completed the HSC through TAFE. These are students that are under attack by this government's policy of increasing debt, increasing the interest rate applying to those debts and requiring those debts to be repaid at a lower threshold. International studies have shown that increasing debt has a greater impact on part-time students and mature age students because they have fewer years to repay those debts. As a university where 50 per cent of students have come from non-traditional paths, my university is under direct attack from this government's higher education changes—more so than most.

I will turn now to the government's ridiculous obsession with lowering the corporate tax rate for big business. This $65 billion tax cut imperils the government's budget. It is a policy looking for a justification, because we've seen record profits around the nation this half-yearly reporting season. In the last few years, profits have increased by 20 per cent, but wages have only gone up by two per cent. So I have zero confidence that a corporate tax cut that increases the profits of large corporations will suddenly lead to higher wage growth. The evidence is just not there. Conventional neoclassical economic theory might posit that. Economic pointy-heads might argue for that. But if you look at the empirical evidence, profits have been increasing at a great rate since 2011 but wages have not kept up, so why would increasing profits automatically lead to higher wages?

This demonstrates the government's obsession with rewarding their mates. They perpetuate a form of class war. They accuse the Labor Party of being class warriors, but there are no greater class warriors than the Liberal-National coalition. They're performing a class war on behalf of their allies at the top end of town. That $65 billion could be spent on so many more deserving projects, whether it's the full implementation of the needs-based schools model; restoring money to higher education; restoring the money that has been cut out of TAFE, which has seen $1.5 billion of cuts by this government; or increasing Newstart to make it genuinely liveable. These are all projects that are much more worthy than corporate tax cuts that will not lead to higher wages for workers in my community.

The other myth peddled by the spruikers of this tax cut is that we need this to compete for footloose foreign capital—that if we don't lower our tax rate we will not attract foreign capital; we'll be uncompetitive. Any economist worth their salt will say that there are a multitude of factors that drive investment decisions, and profit is one of many factors. Other factors include whether the market is large enough to make money, whether it's an innovative place where they can have the real advantages of locating their manufacturing or service facility, whether there's a skilled workforce and whether it's close to other markets. For many years, the United States has had a higher headline corporate tax rate than Australia, but that hasn't stopped Australian companies investing in the United States, because that's where the markets are.

I have proudly voted against these corporate tax cuts—corporate tax cuts that are unaffordable and that have blown a hole in the budget, all to reward the Prime Minister's mates. Governing is about choice, and this is a false choice. It is a poor choice to cut the corporate tax rate while cutting funding to education and hospitals.

There is a much greater challenge that this government should be dealing with: the rise of insecure work. More and more Australians don't know whether they will have the same job in a year's time, or even in a month's time. They are working insecure jobs with very little rights. Often they hold multiple jobs. They could be working in casual jobs, where they could be laid off at the stroke of a pen, where they don't get annual leave, where they don't get long service leave or where they don't get the basic security to be able to purchase a home or take a holiday. They could be part-time workers looking for more work. The level of underemployment in this country is at a very high level. These are workers who either can't find work or want more work and are unable to find it. It all points to an insecure workforce that is leading to stagnating wages, which is reducing buying power in our economy—buying power that we desperately need if we are to stimulate the economy. While the headline unemployment figures might be relatively rosy, the truth underlying them is very worrying and it's something that this government should be focused on. Job insecurity means that families can't plan and can't live their lives with any modicum of security; they live from pay cheque to pay cheque. They live in a world where they are constantly insecure, with all of the accompanying material and psychological impacts of that.

We have a big year ahead. Politics seems to be moving faster and faster, and 2018 is clearly following that trend. Governing is about priorities. Labor's priorities are investing in education, health, secure jobs and giving a dignified retirement to the seniors in our community, whereas the interests on the other side, the choices that this government demonstrates, are in corporate tax cuts that are unjustified and unaffordable; and silly culture wars, whether it's the culture war of coal versus renewables or the culture war around weakening protections in the Racial Discrimination Act. This all points to a government with poor priorities that is rotting from the top and will soon need to be replaced.