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Second Reading Speech: Minerals Resource Rent Tax Repeal and Other Measures Bill 2013

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 24 Mar 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:30): The Minerals Resource Rent Tax Repeal and Other Measures Bill 2013 is a shameful piece of legislation. It is one of the clearest examples that we have seen from this government of robbing the poor to give to the rich. That is how you can sum up this legislation. There are many things that this legislation could be called. Probably the politest way that you could describe what the government is doing here is to call it the 'Thank Gina Rinehart Bill'. The mining companies are really being let off the hook here to an extraordinary degree. They will not be required to even pay a small amount of their profits back into Australian society.

What also makes this bill very interesting is a development that occurred last week, when we heard that the Australian government is planning on providing a $110 million loan to the likes of Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, two giant mining companies that certainly do not need another handout from the Australian public. I bring those two issues together because the Australian government is taking away what is really quite a minimal tax—the tax that will be repealed if this legislation goes through—while at the same time giving a huge loan to mining companies. So once again what we are seeing is that what mining companies want, mining companies are given—and it is bucketloads of dollars. They are given handouts of public money and they are allowed to keep a greater percentage of the profits than they should be allowed to.

We are seeing a government pandering to global mining interests, with the Australian community being left behind to a huge degree. If we had had a properly structured mining tax, it could be funding so many services across this country—in particular, assisting mining communities that have borne the brunt of so much of the hardship that comes with mining over decades and indeed centuries. I am referring to polluted air, damage to our water resources, and fly in fly out workforces that break up local communities. Over the decades our mining communities have been very strong, working together. In my own state of New South Wales, in the areas of Lithgow and the Hunter Valley it was mining communities that worked together to build the first hospital, to help fund the sporting teams and to look after the local schools. But once you have the workforce broken up into fly in fly out communities it does enormous damage. This is the burden the local communities have carried for a very long time. The tax that would be raised if this legislation were left in place would go a long way to assist in those communities. We also know of some specific things that will be lost if this legislation passes. Taking away the very mean $4 a week bonus for the unemployed, and the superannuation tax concessions for low-income earners, is simply wrong. Again, it reveals how cruel this government is, how it will pander to those who are greedy and so deeply self-interested.

We know that the Minerals Resource Rent Tax is a minimal tax, but even at the level it is, we should be keeping it. Companies have been successful in wielding their power over this and previous governments. It is precisely because of these industries that the tax in its current form is only raising a predicted $3.5 billion over four years. But still that money is urgently needed. The tax should be retained, and improved on. We should not be doing what we are seeing being attempted here tonight—getting rid of it. The power of the mining industry to intimidate successive governments is once again on the record, although I suspect that this government would have been opening up the door and inviting the mining companies to come in so they could spell out that they were ready and waiting and champing at the bit to get rid of this legislation.

It is again worth reminding ourselves that mining employs two per cent of the workforce. This needs to be emphasised because, in so much of the way the arguments are presented around the mining tax, you would think that the whole economy depended on the mining industry. It is actually minimal. If you look at jobs growth in the mining industry, it has largely plateaued in recent years. That two per cent of the workforce is only one-quarter of the number who work in the university and tertiary education sector, and a little more than the printing and publishing industry or even the dairy industry. Again, it is just a small part of our economy and it really has been a big lie that the jobs created in this industry are absolutely critical to the economy. That is not to take anything away from the fact that people working in the mining industry obviously have important jobs. But as they lose those jobs—and many are losing them now—a responsible government would be working on a transition so that they have other jobs to move into.

It is even worth looking at the situation in Western Australia. We have seen in that state that there are severe limitations in the mining boom. Jobs that are gained in the construction phase are lost when we move over to mining operations. The times of working in a mine for life and getting a good retirement income are well over. In the first six months of the global financial crisis the mining industry shed 15 per cent of its employees. As of July last year at least 26,000 jobs have been lost in the Australian mining industry. And the stories about job losses keep coming in. I was very concerned to hear last month that in Perth alone 1,300 workers lost their jobs when mining services company Forge Group restructured. That obviously has a huge impact on those workers and their families as it ripples out.

Again, there is no plan for transition. This is a government we should be calling the 'no-plan government' because it is just letting it rip, giving no thought to the future of these workers. Meanwhile they give more and more handouts to the mining industry, letting them get away with not paying their fair share and ensuring these very wealthy, cashed-up foreign mining companies take so much of their profits offshore.

This issue of the loss of jobs in the mining sector is very big for many of the communities I work with in New South Wales. I am often in the Hunter region and in just the last year more than 600 jobs have been lost from the mining sector. This is an area that, again, has carried a huge burden because of the mining sector there. The Hunter has made a huge contribution to Australia's economy over the decades and, in fact, the centuries because the Hunter is where coalmining in Australia started. That community has carried a health burden; there has been insecurity around the waxes and wanes and the health of the mining industry, often with high levels of unemployment; it has suffered damage to all the water resources; and it has lost farming land. Again, I say those words: the job of a responsible government should be to work with communities when economies are in transition to ensure that it is not the working people who carry the hardship and the burden. That is certainly what is happening in the Hunter.

What we now know, with the news that broke overnight, is that this government is really trying to cover its tracks here, because it knows that jobs matter to people. It came into government, saying, 'We'll provide jobs.' What do we now find out? The staff of one of our own senators who sit in this place, Senator Abetz, have been reported as being out there, putting pressure on, ensuring that the job figures that are about to be—

Senator Williams interjecting

Senator RHIANNON: I acknowledge that interjection. Interestingly, we have the Nationals there, defending the Liberal Party, when they are distorting the true story about jobs. What has been reported is that employment minister Eric Abetz is seeking to add 160,000 jobs to the projections due this week. Interestingly, that figure would bring the jobs estimate, which the government are hoping will be announced, very close to what the Prime Minister was forecasting would be the jobs that they would be creating in the coming years. We are seeing the government misusing their position, by coming forward with a very deceptive position with regard to jobs growth in this country. It is this industry, particularly now the mining boom is over, where great attention needs to be given. The Greens have put in a great deal of work into this area, because there can be huge jobs growth both in the renewable energy sector and by moving over to clean manufacturing.

Extensive work has been undertaken in New South Wales by the Centre of Full Employment and Equity, identifying that 73,800 jobs can be created if New South Wales moves over to 100 per cent renewable energy. We should be addressing this sort of work and cooperation between governments, the workforce, the private sector and unions at this time when there is a downturn and a shift away from the mining industry.

But what we are seeing from the industry is them crying poor, claiming that job losses are because of taxes on their industry. That is one of the excuses we have heard time and time again from the likes of some of these big companies, such as Billiton, as to why this legislation has to go. But their profits tell a very different story. In the last financial year BHP Billiton made a profit of $12 billion. In one year, $12 billion! I acknowledge that is around the world and it is from the diverse mining interests that that company has. But it certainly highlights that there is no reason why they should not be paying their fair share of those profits back into Australia. They are mining Australian resources, resources that are essentially owned by the Australian people, and the bulk of those profits should stay in this country.

Rio Tinto's half yearly profits for 2013 were $1.7 billion. Glencore Xstrata's underlying profit was $2 billion. That is big money that should stay in Australia, to help build our public schools, our transport system and our hospitals. We could be taking some very wise decisions on how our society develops.

My colleagues who have come into this debate have pointed out some really excellent ideas on how this matter should be handled. Western Australia is a very interesting example here. It is worth revisiting some of the issues with regard to Western Australia, because it is often put up as the poster child of how excellent the mining industry is for the local economy in that state. But, again, we need to ask: who actually benefits?

The government of Western Australia has lost its AAA credit rating, and services across that state are being slashed. The truth is that this tax is a small amount of money to these companies. They are taking the state and federal governments for a ride. It could have been so different; this money should have been helping people in this country. That is why the Greens reject very strongly the legislation we have before us tonight.

Removing the minerals resource rent tax is a choice between the past and the future. Mining can raise a great deal of money and I certainly acknowledge the contribution at different times that it has made to our economy. But not enough of that benefit has stayed here. Right now we do have a choice between continuing with the old mining industries that we now know are polluting our waterways and our air, damaging our climate and our immediate environment, often impacting on local biodiversity, and robbing us of farming land. That is why, when there are alternatives, we should be looking at them.

What I see up close in New South Wales, where the bulk of mining is the coal industry, is that this is an industry that the world is turning its back on. We should be preparing and be ready to deliver our energy in other ways and to deliver clean manufacturing. But the evidence is in: the renewables are commercially and industrially viable. We need a government with the political will to drive that change. We highlight that we should be making a different choice here, by keeping this tax. That would help that choice be made in a very responsible way.

The Greens have set out how this tax should have been more extensive; we had that costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office. If the tax had been more extensive, it would have raised nearly $20 billion extra over the next four years. It is worth considering what that money could have done. It would not make a huge difference to the operations of the mining companies—they might cry poor, but that would still leave them with a very hefty profit. But for Australians now, and for future generations, that money is badly needed.

I return to the example of the Hunter Valley in NSW. This is a community that is struggling. Unemployment is very high, particularly amongst young people; in many areas it is over 19 per cent. The community is still struggling to deal with the encroachment of mining into farming areas. There is a real alienation of people's lives as a result of the hardship that they face. People in this area are very uncertain about their future. But, if they were able to move to a low-carbon future, they would not be locking the coming generation—the young people of the Hunter—out of a healthy future. It is integral to people's wellbeing to have the prospect of a job. And there are many young people from families where there are up to three generations who have not been in employment. That is deeply wrong. Society needs to take responsibility for that.

That is why the Greens have put so much effort into developing policies around the clean energy industry. This is absolutely vital. It could be the start of a new export industry. We have had many discussions and many meetings about this. The Hunter is an area that has given so much to the economy, not just to the economy of its local region but to the economies of New South Wales and Australia, in terms of the energy and manufacturing that has come from there, in particular from the coal industry. At a time when the world is starting to turn its back on coal, this is an area with a strong history in energy delivery and manufacturing. It is an ideal region for a transition, with the assistance of government, from coal to clean manufacturing and clean energy delivery—building wind turbines and solar panels, not just for the Hunter region but also for the export market. This is where there could be such a bright future for this region. The way a responsible government would do this is to work with the TAFEs and the University of Newcastle to develop programs, and that regional approach could be repeated in so many other areas.

It is clear that we need greater investment in so many of these communities. The repeal of this tax will, however, put money back into the pockets of the major mining companies operating in Australia. This is so deeply wrong. Again I say: it is robbing the poor to give to the rich. This money might come from the profits of the mining companies, but let us remember where those profits are sourced from—public resources, dug out of the land of Australia that is owned by the people of this country. These are issues that we feel very strongly about.

There is another issue that I want to mention, because it comes up often when I am in regional areas, and that is how tough single parents are doing it. They are facing enormous cuts to their payments. The repeal of that legislation that we saw go through is just one more form of hardship. If it were a proper mining tax, or at least if we kept the form that it is in now, that would be another thing that that money could be expended on: reducing inequality in our society. I think we particularly need to note that when we are talking about the many single parents who are doing it tough, 85 per cent of them are women.

We are left with a society that is being done over because we have a very cruel coalition government that is willing to open the doors to the mining companies. Obviously some discussions are held, they work out what they want, and then they are given what they want. What a company is on the planet to do is make profits, and this government has just made it so much easier for companies to keep the bulk of their profits. Some of that money should rightfully come back to the Australian people—and that will not occur.

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