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Andrew Bartlett Statement Opposing the GST Package

This is the text of a statement by the Queensland Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett, setting out his reasons for opposing the revised taxation package.

Senator Andrew BartlettI wish to indicate to my party and to the people of my electorate of Queensland that I am unable to vote for the revised taxation package that was announced by the Prime Minister just over two weeks ago. Whilst there are still some details of the legislation to be finalised, unless there are fundamental changes made to the package announced by the Prime Minister, I will not be able to support it.

My inability to support this package is not based on any philosophical objection to a GST. I have always willingly supported the platform the Democrats took to the last election and the position and recommendations that the party put forward in its Senate Committee reports on the tax legislation.

My personal concern is simply that, overall, the proposed changes will still make our tax system more regressive than it currently is, despite the very significant improvements to the original package which have been made so far by the Democrats.

It is worth emphasising that my vote alone will not stop this package being passed by the Parliament and I recognise that it is likely that it will pass into law by the end of this month. None the less, I take my responsibilities as an individual member of Parliament very seriously. It is important that my electorate of Queensland and members of the Democrats know that, for better or worse, I will not vote for something I am fundamentally opposed to. I believe the tax package partly contradicts Democrat policy, principles and objectives, and is significantly at variance with major commitments which the party gave many times, both before and after the last federal election.

I recognise that some of my colleagues genuinely believe differently on this matter and note the very significant improvements, in both fairness and environmental outcomes, which have been negotiated by people within the Parliamentary party. I know an enormous amount of work has been and continues to be put into this by some of my colleagues and I apologise for not being able to support the outcome of that effort. I welcome the repeated statements from my parliamentary colleagues and from the Democrat membership respecting and supporting my right to a conscience vote on this issue. I have consulted widely with Democrat members and supporters, particularly in Queensland, prior to coming to this decision. I know my concerns are shared by a significant proportion of Democrat members in Queensland and in other parts of the country. I urge all those members to recognise that the Democrats’ core principles have not changed and to recognise that the Democrats still represent the best vehicle in Australian politics to achieve significant social, economic and environmental advancement.

Voting separately from my Parliamentary leader is not something I do lightly, nor something I expect to do often. Despite the views expressed by some political commentators, I do not believe the taxation agreement which the Parliamentary Leader reached with the Prime Minister should be seen as signalling an ideological shift by the Australian Democrats. Every change that the Democrats forced to the original tax package was driven by concern for greater social equity or environmental protection. This demonstrates very clearly that the Democrats will be using our balance of power role to pursue the party’s core aims as strongly as ever.

Some comments on specific aspects of the tax package:

As a Queenslander, I am particularly concerned about the employment impacts of a GST, especially on the tourism industry, a major employer in my home state. I believe not enough has been done to minimise these impacts. I am also concerned that the extra revenue and the clearly identified revenue stream which was to be provided to local government in Queensland now appears to be at risk.

I recognise and share the concerns that many people have about the large increase which will be provided in subsidies for fossil fuel usage. However, I would urge environmentalists to consider just how significant some of the changes which the Democrats have forced will be. Whilst I am still unsure about whether or not these changes will balance out the negative environmental impact of significantly cheaper fuel, I do think the significance of the long-term improvements which the Democrats have gained should not be underestimated.

The Democrats have forced a Coalition government to take environmental concerns seriously and have made environmental issues a central component of the national political agenda for the first time in many years. This is a significant achievement and one which, as the party’s environment spokesperson, I look forward to building on in coming months. Any government which takes environmental issues seriously is more likely to receive the Democrats’ support. The significant gains in the social equity area, especially in areas such as increased pension rates, also need to be acknowledged.

However, despite these gains, the structural inequities will remain in our tax system. A significant shift towards indirect taxes will be entrenched in the new tax system. Also, as many others have stated, relying on compensation for unfair changes to the tax structure is dangerous.

I am also deeply concerned about the potential impact of a GST on non-profit organisations. This sector plays an invaluable role in the community, both socially and economically. It is already considerably under resourced and will clearly face a significant threat from the introduction of a GST. I know work is ongoing to minimise and eliminate that threat and I very much support my party’s efforts in that regard.

The need to exempt books from a GST is something I regard as a fundamental issue for the Democrats and one I will continue to support.

I also have concerns about the impact of the tax changes on housing costs. I know from my involvement over many years in housing issues how much of a factor housing costs can be on poverty levels and living standards. I remain to be convinced that the proposed changes will not have negative impacts in this regard, particularly on the less well off.

Final comments:

I don’t have a problem with taking hard decisions or unpopular decisions, if I believe them to be right decisions. I have never thought of the Democrats as a lobby group and I do not believe the party should act as one.

I have spent a good proportion of the last 9 years, holding a variety of senior positions within the party, encouraging the Democrats to be more pragmatic. I am not a person who believes the party should only support things that are in line with 100% of the party policy. I am happy to support anything that moves in even a small way towards achieving Democrat policy and principles.

I would urge all those who do have concerns to recognise that those who are able to support this package do so because of a genuine belief that it is best for Australia. I would also urge people to recognise that, regardless of whether or not they support the final outcome, every change to the tax legislation that has been achieved was driven by the Democrats’ traditional core concerns of a fairer society, a greener future and a strong, workable, sustainable economy. The Democrats will be in a much better position to effectively pursue and implement those core concerns if people continue to support and assist the party.

The introduction of a GST will not mean the end of tax reform or tax debates in Australia. Indeed, despite all the public focus and heat there has been on the GST, business tax reforms will be potentially much more significant.

The Democrats will have a major and important role to play in the ongoing debates on tax issues and I am keen to be part of ensuring that role is as effective and positive as possible.

Despite my inability to support this package as a whole, I will support any specific changes which improve on the government’s original highly unfair tax package. There is still work being done between the Democrats and the government to finalise the application of the tax changes in many areas, and I hope to be able to continue to do what I can to ensure those negotiations result in positive outcomes.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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