Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (10:30): It distresses me that on this bill, the Excise Tariff Amendment (Fuel Indexation) Bill 2015, I might be seen voting with the Greens political party, but my opposition to this bill is now 12 months old. I made it quite clear 12 months ago, when these measures were first talked about, that I would be opposing this aspect of the government's repair job.
I, as much as anyone, understand the difficult job our government has had in trying to repair Labor's financial mess. As everyone knows, if something were not done about it, the debt owed by the Australian taxpayer would have increased to something like $700 billion in a very short period of time. Already we are paying something like $1 million a day in interest on money that the previous Labor government borrowed. That is $1 million each and every day that is not going to hospitals, schools and roads. It really shows just how completely incompetent the Labor Party was, and I know our government had that very difficult job in last year's budget to try and arrest that decline. Last year and over the past year, I opposed certain elements of last year's budget, most of which, I am pleased to say, have now been addressed. While some people did not like the approach I took to some of the initiatives in last year's budget, I am, as I say, pleased that nearly all of the concerns that I complained about and argued about have been understood and, in one form or another, adopted by the government. By contrast with last year's budget, I think this year's budget is a credit to Mr Hockey, Senator Cormann and, indeed, the government as a whole. It has set the country on the right path.
But I am opposed to this bill and I said so last year. I indicated publicly last year that I would vote against this measure, but the government in its wisdom last year found a lawful mechanism whereby it could introduce the excise, as I understand it, as a customs regulation that did not need to come before this parliament. But it was said by the government at the time that in using this mechanism under the Customs Act, as I understand it, it did have to come before parliament within 12 months for parliamentary approval. I indicated 12 months ago that, when that did happen, I would be voting against this, and I intend to honour the commitment that I made to myself and, more importantly, to the people that I represent in this country.
I will be opposing it for a different reason to Senator Bernardi, who has long held a view, which he so articulately represented today. I have a different view to him but have reached the same conclusion—that I oppose this excise increase. I will be voting against the bill, certainly, on very, very different grounds to those enunciated by the Labor Party and which I am sure will be even further discussed by the next speaker from the Greens political party. The Greens political party oppose this because they do not have any regard for people who live outside the privileged capital cities, which have a tram system, a suburban train system and a public bus system on every corner. That is all the Greens are concerned about. They want more money for public transport—that is great, but there is not much public transport in Croydon or Normanton or Julia Creek or even Mount Isa. This is why the Greens, on this subject and on so many others, are completely wrong.
In fact, whilst opposing this bill I congratulate the government and thank them from the bottom of my heart that the additional money that will be raised by this facility will, as I understand it, go into a hypothecated fund for road construction over the future and will provide funds for road building around our nation even in excess of the moneys that have been announced by the government today. I give the government every credit for that and I congratulate them on it. In that sense, I completely oppose the reasoning of the Greens political party and support the government in where the money is going. Some might say I am having a bob each way in this debate, but I am a realist. I understand that the Labor Party is voting with the government and that my voice, opposed to this, will be not particularly relevant. So the money will flow and, acknowledging that, I am delighted with the government's commitment, which I think the Labor Party supported, which means a lot more money will go into roads around the country. Indeed, I understand that Senator Cormann has already indicated on behalf of the government that an additional $1.1 billion from this excise money will go into Roads to Recovery.
Senator Jacinta Collins: You can thank me later!
Senator IAN MACDONALD: I will thank you now, if you had something to do with that. People come up to me and explain how good Roads to Recovery is. I do not need to be told about Roads to Recovery. I was the minister for local government who, in this chamber, introduced the Roads to Recovery program. It is probably the best program for rural and regional Australia, particularly, although it does apply to capital cities as well. It is a program that enables local council to look after their roadworks with their rate base where they were not able to do it before.
As I used to say to John Howard: 'This has been the most popular program you have ever introduced in rural and regional Australia.' Roads to Recovery has done marvellous things, over time. There was some thought that under the Labor term they would cut back on that but, when pressured on it, they did not. That program was introduced into this chamber in 2001, I think it was, and I am delighted to see it has continued. It has done such a lot to help rural and regional people, particularly in getting decent roadworks out there.
The Greens would not understand this. I suspect Senator Lazarus—who always supports the Greens—would not understand this either. Rarely are they in rural and remote Australia. They do not understand the importance of Roads to Recovery funding for rural communities right across the nation. That is why the Howard government introduced it. I am delighted at Senator Cormann's indication that an additional $1.1 billion is going into the Roads to Recovery program.
Having been so praiseworthy of what will happen up with the money, why am I opposing it? I oppose it because any fuel increase—be it by way of government tax or by way of international oil-company profits—impacts more heavily on those who live in rural and regional Australia. I asked Mr Hockey, at the last budget, whether any modelling had been done by the federal government on the impact of an increase in excise on rural and regional Australia as opposed to our privileged fellow citizens who live in the suburbs of the major cities and towns of our nation. Mr Hockey did give me something.
With respect to Mr Hockey—and Treasury, who did it—it was not particularly persuasive. I do not have the figures; I do not have the resources to get the figures and this debate has come on a little earlier than I might have expected. From my own experiences, over 25 years, in trying to help people in Queensland, the state I represent, and particularly those who live distances from the capital cities, I know the impact of any increase in fuel on the cost of living for people in those areas.
People who live in areas remote from the capital cities already are disadvantaged. You do not have to be Einstein to work out that if you need to get goods from the capital city to where I live, in Ayr, you have a 1,000 kilometre road hike by the transport company to bring the goods. Of course, things have to cost more. We who live in the country accept that. There are advantages of living in the country, but the cost of living is always more.
If I want to see a specialist doctor I have to drive a hundred kilometres from my town. That is a hundred kilometres worth of fuel just to go and see a doctor. If you live in a capital city you can get on your suburban train and stop outside the doctor's door. It costs you—what's a suburban train ride these days? Ten dollars? I do not know. I rarely do it, I have to confess, but certainly it is a lot less than paying for the petrol. I am pretty privileged. I live in a small country community that it is only 100 kilometres away from Townsville, a major northern city with all services.
But if you happen to live in Croydon or Normanton or Julia Creek or Birdsville, just for the normal costs of living—education, getting you kids to school or getting to see any sort of doctor—it costs a lot more. Where does the cost come? It comes because you have to drive there, and to get there in your car you have to put fuel into the fuel tank. So every time the cost of fuel increases, be it by government excise or otherwise, the cost of living to people in rural and regional Australia increases.
I know of an instance up on the Gilbert River in the Gulf Country of Queensland where a mother drives her children 80 kilometres to school in the morning, comes back—that is 160 kilometres—to do her work on the entity they are involved with and then, in the afternoon, drives another 80 kilometres back to the town and 80 kilometres back home. That is 320 kilometres a day, just to get the kids to school. The cost to that person is enormous. But it is never thought of by the Greens. There is not, unfortunately, a tram running from George Town to the Upper Gilbert River to allow these kids to get to school.
Senator Di Natale: Don't you believe in regional rail and buses?
Senator IAN MACDONALD: I'd love it! Where is your proposal? Are you ever likely to have a suburban rail network going from George Town—population of 400—to the Upper Gilbert—population of about 50? How stupid. How unrealistic. How completely removed from reality are the Greens political party? That is why they are concentrated on the inner-city latte set, who can easily jump on the tram, jump on the train, get the public bus—
Senator Di Natale: Coal seam gas—
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Lines ): Senator Macdonald, resume your seat, please! Senators are entitled to be heard in silence, so let's have silence. Thank you, Senator Macdonald.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Madam Acting Deputy President Lines, thank you for protecting me from this vicious attack by the Greens political party. Unfortunately, I did not hear the interjection about coal-seam gas, but that is a matter for another debate. To you and your mate Senator Lazarus: in Queensland where the coal seam gas is, the LNP won every seat in the last state election. So, if we do live in a democracy, if we do live where the voices of people count, then you know what the people think about coal seam gas, in spite of you and your mate Senator Lazarus trying to build up some support in an area that is, I might say, made up of very sensible people who know how they are voting. That is why every seat in South-West Queensland at the last Queensland election went to the LNP.
I am distracted. I come back to the very serious subject of the cost of living for people in the bush. I have given one small example. There are a million examples I could give if time permitted, but they would be repetitive. The couple that I have given clearly explain that. I understand the government has to raise money and, if they raise it from the people who have the advantage of getting on the suburban train or on the tram or on the public bus, that is fine. I remember some years ago—and regrettably the details have escaped me a little—that during the Fraser years there was a scheme in place where petrol anywhere in Australia would be no more than 5c a litre dearer than it is in the capital cities. I am not sure why that was ever stopped. I suspect the voting strength of people in the rural and regional areas was not sufficient for successive governments to continue that program, but that was a good scheme that should be looked at again. In one way it would help ameliorate the often very great disparity in the price of fuel in more remote areas. The fact that rural people, of necessity, must use their cars for longer distances and more often than those in the city means that, again, the cost of living for people in the country is more expensive.
The government, perhaps even misguidedly, think that giving more money to Roads to Recovery will help rural people and might be some form of compensation, but, as I have pointed out, Roads to Recovery goes to the Brisbane City Council as well. I do not begrudge them that, but of course you know the Brisbane City Council has a budget bigger that the state of Tasmania, so it does not really compensate. There are other programs that this government have had for rural and regional people that do recognise the cost disadvantages of living in the country, but nothing impacts on people's lives in areas 100 or 200 kilometres from major cities more than the cost of fuel—just to get the kids to school, to get kids to their sporting events and to get to doctors. For a lot of Australians to see a doctor involves a $500, $600, $700 or $1,000 plane flight to the next community or it involves driving those sorts of distances. Every time you put up the cost of fuel, those people suffer.
Because I said so a year ago and made the commitment to myself and to the people I represent, but more importantly because it has a huge impact on people living remote from the major cities and towns in our community, I do oppose this and will always oppose it. I was in parliament when the Howard government stopped the automatic indexation of fuel and I thought that was one of the best decisions. It was another very good decision of the Howard government. One was, as I said, Roads to Recovery, and stopping the automatic indexation was another. Why? Because it had a beneficial effect for people who live remote from the services that we all need for our daily lives.
I conclude where I started. It will distress me having to vote with the Greens on anything, but I will be voting against this legislation. I emphasise that it is on completely different grounds to the Greens. In fact, diametrically opposed are the grounds upon which I oppose this. I have no truck with the arguments the Greens have and will make on this subject. I would like to hear Senator Milne's next contribution regarding how she understands the plight of people living 1,000 kilometres away from a major city. I do not think the state Senator Milne represents has any communities more than 1,000 kilometres away from a capital city, but it will be interesting to hear that. It is with some regret that I will be voting against my own government, but I do so in furtherance of my long-held view that people who live in the country should not be disadvantaged any more than need be by where they live, and increases in the price of fuel certainly increases that disadvantage, which I will fight against forever.