Emergency Services Levy 2014-15 | SPEECH


Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN ( Stuart ) ( 11:31 :19 ): I too rise to comment on the 85th report of the Economic and Finance Committee, entitled Emergency Services Levy 2014-15. I would like to make it very clear that I have recently been appointed to the Economic and Finance Committee. I have not attended a meeting yet because there has not been one since my appointment. I was disappointed to shift away from the Natural Resources Committee, but that is just how things go. I do look forward to my involvement with this committee. I was not a member of the committee when this report was tabled but I do take a very serious interest in this matter not only as a new member of this committee but also as, until very recently, shadow minister for emergency services.

My main purpose in my contribution today is to debunk the rubbish said by the Treasurer in question time yesterday and also by commentators in the media about the opposition’s response to this levy increase—that somehow we should have known exactly what was coming and the phrase ‘hidden in plain sight’, which is completely inappropriate. To be really clear, so that everybody understands, let me read directly from a section of the report that came out in mid-June. I am reading from section 4, Legislative Overview:

…the levy proposal consists of a charge to owners of both fixed and mobile property. The charge is determined in accordance with a formula using prescribed rates as declared by the Governor.

Once these prescribed rates are established, remissions to the levy may be granted. When remissions are granted the government declares effective rates of the levy which are used in the calculations of levy bills.

The remissions are paid into the Community Emergency Services Fund established under the Act, directly from Treasury’s consolidated revenue account. Remissions paid to the account represent the difference between the declared rate and the effective rate of the levy.

As per the minister’s statement, details of the remissions provided by the Government on fixed-property ESL and mobile property liabilities for 2014-15 will be provided on 19 June 2014 as part of the 2014-15 budget.

It would not have mattered what question any member from the opposition or anyone else asked. The answer would have been, ‘Not going to tell you a thing until the budget is released.’ To say that questions went begging is absolutely ridiculous. We all know, because they are the answers we got to every other question about things that might be coming in the budget. Essentially, the report said there might be some changes in the budget. We had no choice but to wait until the budget was released to know what those changes were, and any suggestion to the opposite is clearly false and misleading.

Now what we got, of course, was a new tax. Let me be very clear about this: the increase in the emergency services levy is going to net the state government an additional $384 million in extra revenue. The state government in the budget gives the emergency services sector an extra $8 million. Let’s be very clear about that. This is not about increasing the emergency services levy so that the emergency services sector can have all of this extra money. This is an extra tax and all of it except for $8 million will go to another sector. If you take the $8 million off the $384 million, you get $376 million—that is $376 million of extra tax being charged under the guise of the emergency services levy that is going to go to a completely different sector.

As it turns out, it is going to the health sector which had already, previously to the budget, announced that the government was going to cut $932 million out of the health sector. So the government made a decision to cut nearly $1 billion out of health—and, by the way, it is trying to blame all of that on the federal government which again is completely inappropriate—but is now going to take $376 million out of the emergency services levy and put it into health. This tax which is on households, properties, mobile properties is a tax which affects every component of our society which is linked to those properties. Every household pays it and every tenant in a rented property is going to pay it because eventually the landlord will pass it through in the rent at the next rent review opportunity.

Every small business is paying this extra tax. It is a tax on business which makes it even harder for businesses to employ people, which should be the key focus of any government and any opposition. One of its highest priorities must be to try to increase employment. Any business that works out of owned premises will pay this tax, any business that works out of rented premises will pay this tax. Guess what? They will pay it immediately because they will get it from their landlord under outgoings which is the normal way in a commercial tenancy.

Residential properties will have to wait a little bit until the next rent review and the landlord decides to pass it on. However, immediately, a business that works in a rented property, as soon as the landlord gets the extra charge on the ESL, the landlord as part of the outgoings will pass it straight on to their small business tenant. So it is a tax on business; that is what we actually have here.

Another dreadfully concerning thing here is the negative impact that this will have on the public perception of our emergency services workers because, as I said, of $384 million being taxed here only $8 million is going to the emergency services sector, but every household that gets the extra bill is quite likely to think that it is going to the emergency services but they are not going to get any extra service from the emergency services sector, whether they be professionals or volunteers. They are not going to get any additional service because of this levy. They are going to get a levy—an extra charge, an extra tax, extra money out of their household—but the emergency services sector will not be able to provide them with any better service than they already do, so it is harming the reputation of the hardworking volunteers and professionals in our emergency services sector as well.

Another extremely concerning issue here is the fact that the government is trying to bypass the very important parliamentary scrutiny of issues through parliamentary committees. I think every member here would have to accept that the work that parliamentary committees do in interrogating some of the decisions that the government makes is valuable and important and is usually done in a bipartisan way.

The government here is bypassing the Economic and Finance Committee’s opportunity to interrogate this decision by just including in the report before the budget that it is likely to make changes in this area but, for the first time ever, not actually say what the changes will be so that the committee’s Liberal and Labor members do not have the opportunity to scrutinise that decision. It would be akin to the Public Works Committee getting a report for a significant piece of public infrastructure but we are not going to tell you what it costs. We want you to interrogate every single thing about this project but we are not going to tell you what it costs and, by the way, we want you to tell us whether you approve it or not and, by the way, the committee is dominated by government members. We will tell you everything about it, except the price tag.

It would be akin to the Natural Resources Committee having natural resources management board levy increases hidden from it. The boards would come to the committee, and they would say, ‘Here’s all of the work we want to do, these are the challenges we have, these are the goals we have set ourselves, and this is what we would like to do on behalf of the committee. We are seriously considering increasing our levies—we may or may not—and it will come out in the budget, but we’re not going to tell you what it is. Can you tell us, please, Natural Resources Committee, will you approve this report?’ Well, of course that would be ludicrous. It would be ludicrous for the Natural Resources Committee to be asked to accept a report from the boards that work around the state and to say that their work and their levy increases were okay without their being told what the increases would be.

It would be ludicrous for the Public Works Committee to be asked to approve a government-planned piece of public infrastructure and to tell the parliament that they support the development of this infrastructure, with a significant price tag, but not know what it costs, and that is exactly what we have here. The Economic and Finance Committee was asked to approve this report and, with a majority of government members on it approved it, but the committee itself had no idea what the change in the remission rate would be, yet it had to support it anyway.