Question Time for the year began in a very sombre, very quiet, very artificial mood. Sure maybe the floods and cyclones have had a massive effect on the attitudes of politicians, who have all now become kindler and gentler. But we all know it was act, because when finally the opposition began to shout and the Government yelled back, it all seemed real.
Not good, of course; but at least real.
The theme of the day was the floods, and as a result aside from Tony Abbott and Tony Crook, all question were asked by someone whose electorate had in some way suffered from flooding or the cyclone – all the better for each to reference how bad things are.
For the Government it was all about talking about the rebuilding; for the opposition it was about asking why this person or that small business should not have to pay the levy (oh sorry – “flood tax”).
After only a few questions we discovered that the standard of delivery was not going to see any great upward shift from last year. Joe Hockey rumbled up to the box to show the results of his net practice over the summer:
Mr HOCKEY (2.18 pm)—My question is to the Treasurer. How many Australians will have to pay the flood levy and how many Australians who would normally be responsible for paying the flood levy will not have to because of specific circumstances?
Yep how many, because that’s what is important. Hockey wanted Swan to give him a figure for how many people were going to claim flood relief before they have claimed it. Swan rightly treated the question with derision:
Mr SWAN—I thank the Shadow Treasurer for this very important question. It really goes to the core of who will pay this levy and who will not. We know, for example, that everybody under $50,000 will not pay this levy. We also know that those over $100,000 will pay more. We also know that those that are receiving payments under our disaster relief arrangements—
Mr Dutton—What about the figures?
[Ah Dutton is back. Oh good, we missed him so much over the summer]
Mr SWAN—I am going through them. We also know that those that are receiving payments under our disaster relief arrangements—those adults that have received the $1,000 and those with children the $400—will not be paying that amount of money.
Now normally at this point Swan would obfuscate, but he actually gives a direct answer:
I cannot tell you how many of those there are. I cannot tell you, but the Prime Minister before did give you a quantum. Of course we cannot give you a final figure about that. I am more than happy to provide you with estimates later on. I cannot give you a final figure and neither is it realistic to give one.
Exactly right. When Treasury works out how much tax they will raise, they estimate how many will pay. Does Hockey think there’s a figure going around that Swan could use down to the last individual? Does he think he needs to know it? Does he think Swan goes door knocking around to everyone to get the tax and if he doesn't have the precise number he might miss someone? Moreover, the fact is, it doesn’t matter to people in the slightest how many have to pay because all we really need to know is who pays and who doesn’t. If Swan had stood up and said everyone who earns over $40,000 will have to pay, then you would have a gaffe, because it would show he’s not really across his own policy. This? Well this is just answering a dopey question honestly.
Hockey bounded on in for a supplementary:
Mr HOCKEY—Supplementary question, Mr Speaker. To the Treasurer again: given that the government estimates are that it will raise approximately $1.8 billion from the flood levy, exactly how many people does the Treasury estimate will have to pay the levy.
Exactly how many people? Oh dear Joe, you think an estimate comes in with Treasury suggesting 4,504,324 people will pay? Hockey wants an exact estimate? This is the guy who fronted up at the last election with a Excel spread sheet masquerading as a audit, and one which went from $50 billion in savings to around $11 billion once Treasury had a look at it. He really should stay away from demanding exactness in budget figures.
Late in the session Luke Hartsuyker got up to make sure Hockey’s question wasn’t the dopiest of the day:
Mr HARTSUYKER (2.53 pm)—My question is to the Prime Minister. On 31 March 2009, thousands of residents in my electorate of Cowper were severely impacted by a major flood event. Despite the flood being declared a natural disaster, the government never provided victims with one-off Centrelink disaster payments of $1,000 per adult and $400 per child. Will the Prime Minister now ensure that people who suffered a substantial loss as a result of the floods of 31 March receive those payments and be exempted from the government’s flood tax?
Yep, Hartsuyker wants people whose houses were flooded in a previous financial year to be exempted from paying a levy in the next financial year. And these people who he wants exempted are those who did not even qualify for disaster relief in that previous financial year! Geez, if we let them get out of paying, we’ll be having to exempt people who were around for the 1956 floods in South Australia.
It’s not that such a question is so dumb that is astonishing, it’s that it got through the Liberal’s tactics committee. Unfortunately for Hartsuyker, the Primer Minister had had enough of playing nice, and she danced down the pitch and put this ball somewhere in the upper deck of the stands:
Ms GILLARD—I thank the member for his question and I am very happy to answer it and, as I answer it, to clear up what is clearly becoming a set of misapprehensions on behalf of the opposition which I do not think we should allow to run unchallenged. The guidelines under the natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements are the same guidelines operated by the Howard government.
Eww, don’t you hate it when it turns out the Howard Government did the same thing…
They are the guidelines that the Leader of the Opposition called on me just before Christmas to make sure applied to natural disasters this summer. So any question about the natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements guidelines we are operating are the very guidelines the Leader of the Opposition called on me to have for natural disasters this summer.
Oops. Nice one Luke, I’m betting Abbott just loves being used as a baseball bat with which to slap you around the head.
I know consistency of purpose is not the Leader of the Opposition’s strong suit, so if he has changed his mind—other than on the question of additional assistance for people in Cyclone Larry that he has raised in parliament today and raised in the Sunday newspapers—generally about the architecture of natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements and he now believes, as the questioning of his members would seem to imply, that they should extend to meeting all losses sustained by every business and every householder then the Leader of the Opposition should say that, we will have it costed for him and he should nominate matching savings. I think he is going to find that pretty hard to do.
Ouch. A question on people being exempted from paying the “flood tax” becomes a tool for Gillard to slap down Abbott for being one to go back on his word. This answer needs a point of order quick smart:
Mr Hartsuyker—Mr Speaker, on a point of order: I would like the Prime Minister to be directly relevant to the question, which related to the Centrelink disaster payments that existed in 2009.
Good of Hartsuyker to ram home the illogical aspect of his question. It was 2009 Luke, let it go!!!
The SPEAKER—The Prime Minister is aware of the requirement to be directly relevant to the question.
Mr Martin Ferguson interjecting—
The SPEAKER—It was a frivolous interjection by the Minister for Tourism. The Prime Minister has the call.
Ms GILLARD—So let us not hear anything more about natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements other than the call for additional assistance for small businesses as outlined by the Leader of the Opposition, unless the Leader of the Opposition articulates what it is and then we will have it costed.
On the question asked by the member, the triggering of Australian government disaster relief payments is being operated by the current government in the way it has been operated by governments past. It has never been the practice of the Australian government—under Mr Howard or any other Prime Minister—to trigger those payments for every weather event or natural disaster. It always has been the practice of the Australian government to respond with those payments when natural disasters are of a size that the view is formed that it is beyond the capacity of the community and the state to deal with it. There is not one factor that is put into decision making by this government that was not a factor in decision making by the former Howard government. So let us, once again, not listen to an analysis that says somehow we are less generous with AGDRPs than governments past have been.
A nice recap of how things are done, and then she ends with…
Finally, I have taken questions today about the operation of the levy. I am still waiting for the answer as to why it was good enough for the Leader of the Opposition to say a $6 billion levy was necessary to fund his election promises but it is not good enough to have a levy to rebuild Queensland and the nation.
One of the best other answers was the final one given by Kevin Rudd in response to a Dorothy Dixer asking in effect why it was so stupid for Abbott to suggest cancelling the funding for the Indonesian schooling assistance. Rudd ended Question Time by announcing:
“There would have to be one person in the world who would be happy with the new policy adopted by the leader of the opposition and that's Abu Bakar Bashir, because he supports militant Islamism continuing in the Indonesian education system.”
Spot on, and that the Libs didn’t see that coming when they decided to cut that bit of foreign aid shows how ramshackle a process was their “cuts”. It leaves them defenceless when attacking the Government on any tough on terrorism line. It also is just stupid policy.
Speaking of stupid, once again today we saw evidence that the media just swallows in one gulp any media release of a study down by anything that looks learned without ever questioning the findings.
The Australian and Fairfax papers splashed large with a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (seriously, that name alone should deem it for the bin) that showed the NBN was going to cost 24 times as much as the equivalent scheme in South Korea!!
Yes I know! 24 times!!
The SMH even had the dopey lead of NBN Study Reveals Shock Figures
Well the only shock was that anyone was taking them seriously.
The Economist Intelligence Unit is a branch of the Economist Group (ie those who also put out the magazine The Economist) and in this study of broadband schemes it had decided to create an “index”. Now whenever you rank things you need to put in some assumption of what is good and bad. Well for the EIU anything related to Government ownership or expenditure is bad. Private sector? All good. Take their blurb of the study:
Australia, the country with the highest-profile and most controversial public-sector scheme, also falls in the bottom half of the index, mainly because it is spending a colossal 7.58% of annual government budget revenues on its National Broadband Network
So the “main” reason it performs badly is because the government is spending a lot on it. Well grab that feather and knock me down. Right wing think-tank favours private sector. Hold the front page.
And just ask yourself as well, when was the last time any infrastructure spend in Australia was compared to that in South Korea. Do we say, well you know it cost the South Korean Government a lot less to build all the highways in their country compared to how much we have to spend? Err no, you don’t. Why? Well maybe (and I’m going out on a limb here) because South Korea has a area of 100,210 km2 compared to Australia's 7,617,930 km2. To put it in context – Tasmania alone is just over 90,000km2. In total, Australia is about 76 times larger than South Korea, and yet we’re only paying 24 times as much? Sounds like a bargain to me.
Unfortunately it wasn’t just the media that fell face first into this pile of broadband stupidity, Malcolm Turnbull left his sense at home as well:
"Now the Economist Intelligence Unit joins the long list of expert observers, both international and local, who are utterly dismayed by the reckless spending of the Gillard Government on the NBN," Mr Turnbull said.
"The study confirms, yet again, that this NBN project should be the subject of a rigorous cost-benefit analysis by the Productivity Commission."
You almost have to feel sorry for the guy sprouting crud he knows is ridiculous. Had a lawyer opposing him in court said just what he did, Turnbull would have destroyed the argument with more venom and sarcasm than would seemingly be possible for one person to muster. He must hate himself saying these things that he know can be so easily demolished, but such are the joys of being in opposition and given the task to “destroy” the NBN.
Good luck Malcolm, for your sake here’s hoping this isn’t your best shot.