Floods, photo-ops, and the ghost of levies past

January 28, 2013

As I write, large areas of Queensland are underwater. Residents in Ipswich and Bundaberg are scrambling to evacuate before the expected flood peak – but already their homes and businesses are awash. Some houses are expected to be washed away by the force of the water. In the last few days, the areas surrounding Bundaberg were battered by no less than six tornadoes. The Brisbane River is rising, tearing away pontoons and boardwalks, sending boats downstream, and expected to peak around dinner time. Meanwhile on the Gold Coast, the tail end of Cyclone Oswald lashes the streets of Surfer’s Paradise and the Nerang River broke its banks a few hours ago.

And in the Lockyer Valley, people are isolated, some breaking down under the stress.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s not quite a carbon copy of the 2011 floods, but it’s pretty damned close. Back then, 78 people lost their lives, and countless others lost everything they had. The damage might not be as bad this time around, but it’s a terrible situation – and it’s almost impossible to imagine the trauma being suffered by those who have to go through this again. In some cases, they’d only just finished repairing the damage from two years ago.

To make matters worse, northern New South Wales is also under threat. Lismore residents have been told to prepare to evacuate, as the Tweed River rises, and rises.

Needless to say, the media are all over it. Wall-to-wall coverage on Channel 9 and Sky, frequent updates on ABC News 24, live blogs from newspapers – we can have it all. And that’s without following any particular #qldfloods or similar hashtags. Back in 2011, we saw then Premier Anna Bligh receiving constant updates from emergency services, holding frequent media conferences to deliver important information and urge people to keep their spirits up, and in general, doing what a Premier should do.

Today, we’ve seen the current Premier, Campbell Newman, grabbing every photo opportunity possible. In possibly the most egregious of these, he stood out in the rain clad in a regulation ‘Man-from-Snowy-River’ long coat with the local mayor. With rain dripping from his nose, he frequently interrupted the mayor’s attempt to answer questions about the situation on the ground, and how his constituents were handling things. Newman had his own message to get out – that his government had it under control, and was already looking towards the clean-up. This, before the scope of the disaster can possibly be known – and not without a swipe or two at the former Bligh government.

To back him up, Newman made what can only be regarded as an astoundingly stupid move, politically speaking. He invited Opposition Leader Tony Abbott up to Queensland to ‘tour’ the flood areas. And then we had photos of Abbott filling a sandbag. Of Abbott and Newman studying a map with fierce concentration. Of Abbott moving amongst ‘the people’ with patented handshake and clap-on-the-shoulder ‘you’ll be right, mate’ gestures. And why was Abbott there? Apparently, Newman thought it was important that the ‘alternative Prime Minister’ be fully informed.

Really, we’ve all heard the jokes about Queensland living in the 1950s, but has Newman never heard of a phone?

The stupidity wasn’t confined to Newman and Abbott, though. The Opposition’s Indigenous spokesperson, Andrew Laming, decided to make sure his boss got all the attention he deserved, and took to Twitter.

Indeed, where was the Prime Minister? Why, she was in Victoria with Premier Ted Baillieu, visiting emergency service personnel who had spent the majority of last week fighting ferocious bushfires. Those fires are contained now, but may still burn for months. Nonetheless, the immediate emergency was over – making it a far more appropriate time for a politician to be holding media conferences on site. Arguably, the best time for such an activity is never – but if such is inevitable in politics, then surely the time to make political capital out of disaster is well after the emergency is past?

But hey, that’s politics, right? Stupid MPs mugging for the cameras and popping on their Hi-Vis vests and hard hats for the sake of a good photo?

Maybe. But then there’s this.

Remember back in 2011, when the government introduced a flood levy to help pay for reconstruction from the disastrous floods? You know, the one Tony Abbott said was a cruel impost on the poor? The one he declared would put paid to anyone ever again voluntarily donating to any other disaster relief?

The one we all paid, and no one bemoaned the loss of an average of $1.74 each week?

Well, Abbott’s at it again. The floods haven’t even peaked, and already he’s raising the spectre of The Evil Taxing Labor Government. Oh, he’s being sneaky about it. He’s not going to come right out and say that there will be a new flood levy, but – and he hates to say it – ‘It doesn’t matter what the problem is; spend more, tax more is the Labor Party’s solution’.

Of course, he’s happy to quickly remind people that his Opposition fought the flood levy tooth and nail two years ago. Oh, but now’s not the time to bring politics into it, he hastens to add. Just as long as we’re clear on the Opposition’s principles, and we’ve had the idea planted in our heads that the government will bring in another levy after these floods.

His work here is done. Sandbag filled, soundbite delivered, poison injected. He can return to his high-and-dry home secure in the warm glow of knowledge of a job well done.

But hold on a moment. Suppose he’s right? Suppose the government does decide a new one-off levy is warranted? Or even – say it ain’t so – a Disaster Relief Fund, such as was proposed after the 2011 floods and Cyclone Yasi? How terrible, exactly, would it be?

Probably about as terrible as it already has been. A negligible amount taken from our salaries, in order to help those whose lives have been shattered by fire, flood, or cyclone. Something we wouldn’t even notice. That’s what Abbott – and by extension, Newman – wants us to fear. In the midst of disaster, he wants us to focus on how well he fills sandbags and how Labor is coming to take your hard-earned money away.

It’s shameful, and it shouldn’t go unanswered. For every shovelful of sand Abbott hefts, how many hundreds are being moved off-camera? How many thousands of emergency service personnel risk their lives to save people from drowning or burning to death, while he poses by a Rural Fire Service fire truck in his protective gear? And how many of those emergency services workers are injured, or even lose their lives, while he bleats about the evils of parting with $1.74 per week in order to give our fellow Australians just a little bit of help?

Do we know who they are, those people? Not unless they’re in the background, in which case it’s, ‘Hey, who’s that in the photo with Tony Abbott?’

It should be the other way around. ‘Hey, who’s that in the photo with Gary/Jen/whoever?’

Better yet, it should be, ‘Hey, look at those incredibly brave people putting themselves at risk to save other people, and they’re not even getting paid. Real heroes. Isn’t it great that the pollies keep out of their way and make sure they’ve got the resources to do their jobs?’

Yeah, yeah, I know. Tell her she’s dreaming.


A reality check on the flood levy

January 28, 2011

The preliminary costs to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed by the floods is estimated by Treasury to be $5.6 billion over the next four years, the bulk of which is needed for Queensland alone. This figure only takes into account such public infrastructure as public transport, ferries, ports, rail and roads; it does not include the costs to private businesses and individuals, which are still being estimated. It’s a staggering amount – and that’s without factoring in the likely effects on both state and national economies, which may drop our expected Gross Domestic Product figure by as much as 0.5%.

Under longstanding national disaster arrangements with the states, the federal government pays 75% of that $5.6 billion. Given that the budget is in deficit, there are really only three ways to find that money – borrow it, take it from other programs or institute a levy. Gillard absolutely ruled out borrowing, calling it a ‘soft option’. Instead, the government proposes to combine the other two approaches, bringing in a flood levy and cutting and capping programs.

On the face of it, there are a lot of numbers and it all gets confusing pretty quickly, so I want to deal with these two proposals in separate posts. Let’s start with the one that’s provoked the most hysterical rhetoric so far – the levy.

This will be raised over the 2011-12 financial year. Those earning between $50,001-100,000 per year will pay 0.5% on their taxable income, while those who make over $100,000 will pay 1%. Low income earners – under $50,000 – and those affected by the floods will be exempt.

Gillard absolutely ruled out extending the levy past the 2011-12 financial year. So Australians are being asked to pay a set amount, once, to help offset the cost of rebuilding infrastructure around the country.

According to Treasury’s fact sheet, that means someone earning $80,000 will pay $149.76, or $2.88 per week. That’s a little more than half the price of a decent latte that you might grab on the way to work. On a salary of $55,000, the amount drops to $24.96, or 48c per week – about the price of an apple.

If you’re lucky enough to earn $300,000, you’ll pay $2250.04 – the equivalent of replacing your 12-month-old MacBook Pro, or a big family meal at KFC every week.

Cue the aforementioned hysterical rhetoric.

It’s ‘grossly unfair’, according to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. It’s ‘unprecedented,’ shouted Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey. It’s ‘unnecessary,’ according to any Opposition MP or Senator who could secure air time.

Abbott warned that ‘flood victims and volunteers’ would be hit with the tax. Hockey railed about how terrible it was to ask people to donate money and time to help flood victims and then slug them with a tax they had no choice about paying. Both tutted about the unfairness of bringing in this levy ‘on top of the mining tax and the carbon tax’, and said there was more than enough ‘fat in the budget’ to pay for the rebuilding – the government simply hadn’t looked hard enough.

Finally – and most egregiously – the Opposition claimed that because of the levy, people would be less likely to donate to disaster relief appeals in the future. Instead, they’d simply wait for a levy that they were forced to pay.

Reality check.

Anyone in receipt of a Disaster Relief Payment is exempt from the levy. Abbott says this is unfair, because unless your home was pretty much destroyed, you can’t get that payment. Take a look at the qualifying conditions from the government’s Disaster Assist website, however. Yes, you’re eligible for that payment if your house was destroyed, someone was injured or someone was killed. What Abbott failed to mention was that you are also eligible if you were stranded or kept out of your house by floodwaters for 24 hours, lost power for 48 hours due to floods or your sewage backed up for the same amount of time.

So if your power stayed on and you need to have your carpets cleaned, possibly replace a few pieces of furniture – you’ll have to pay the levy. Otherwise, you’re exempt.

What about the idea that this is ‘unprecedented’? Queensland Premier Anna Bligh pointed out that the idea of a levy is nothing new. She cited four from recent years. To fund the Guns Buy-Back Scheme after the Port Arthur massacre, the Howard government increased the Medicare levy by 0.2% in 1996, lifted in 1997. In 2000, the Howard government placed a levy of 11c per litre on milk to help fund deregulation of the dairy industry that was only discontinued after 2008. When Ansett Airlines – a private company – collapsed in 2001, the Howard government raised a $10 per airline ticket levy to help pay entitlements for the laid-off workers. That levy was abolished in 2003. Finally, a levy of 3c per kilogram of sugar to help fund restructuring for growers, was instituted in 2003 and lifted in 2006.

The only thing ‘unprecedented’ about the Gillard government’s flood levy is that it will be used to fund rebuilding national public infrastructure after natural disasters – not prop up or bail out failing industry.

As for the claims of ‘more fat in the budget’ – this is speculation at best, nonsense at worst. When asked, Abbott’s only response to ‘where else would you get money from?’ is to point at the NBN. Get rid of that, and apparently all our problems would be solved. I’ve already covered the consequences of scrapping this major infrastructure work-in-progress. Needless to say, those sorts of details don’t factor in Abbott’s condemnation of the government’s levy.

And then there’s the idea that a levy will make people less likely to donate. I’m disgusted to say that I’ve seen a fair few people posting around the net that they intend to withhold potential future donations on the basis of this levy. Worst of all was the call for people to ask for their donations back from the Premier’s Appeal, or to cancel cheques and credit card payments. ‘Why should I have to pay twice?’ was the substance of their reasoning.

I hardly know where to start.

First, no one ‘has’ to pay twice. Those who chose to donate to the Premier’s Appeal did so voluntarily – and deserve thanks for doing so. But it was their choice.

Second, this isn’t some kind of ‘double-dip. Money collected from the voluntary appeal is earmarked for individuals hit by flood damage – the ‘Mums and Dads’, to use Bligh’s phrase. The levy is purely for rebuilding public infrastructure.

But what’s behind this incredibly mean-spirited sentiment?

The idea that we should just ‘wait for the tax’ undercuts the entire rationale for giving money to people in need. Public funds are already spent to help homeless people and those with major disabilities – does this mean we should therefore stop giving to St Vincent de Paul or Vision Australia? We send millions of dollars overseas in aid – should we no longer donate to World Vision or Care Australia? And how about all those kids, who are covered by Medicare? Surely we don’t need to donate to the Good Friday Appeal?

The whole notion is patently absurd.

Or is this about visibility? Is it just that people want to be seem to be voluntarily giving up their money to help others? What a repugnant idea – that we should only give when we can tell others we’ve done so.

I’d like to think it’s not about the fact that donations are tax deductible, and a levy is not.

Is there something ideological at work here, something that says it’s fine for us to donate to privately run charities or through businesses such as Coles and Woolworths, but not through the government that is directly accountable to us? This is particularly nonsensical. If a government rips us off, we have recourse. We can find out where the money has gone. Prying that sort of information out of charities and businesses is considerably more difficult, if not outright impossible. Ultimately, we can even vote out a government if we find it’s screwed around with that money. We can’t demand that a charity cease to operate unless we can prove criminal acts – see my earlier point about getting that information.

The Premiers of Western Australia and Victoria – both Liberal – endorsed the levy. Abbott, however, just goes right on raising meaningless objections and pandering to the pettiness of the mean-spirited.

It’s worth repeating: this levy is tiny. It requires almost no sacrifice from the majority of Australians – and what little it does ask is surely worth it. That money will help Brisbane and other flood-affected areas return to something like business as usual, with knock-on benefits for the entire country. Even aside from the economic benefits, the simple humanity of helping out others is something to be desired.

To end on an encouraging note: many people have already signalled that – although they earn well under the levy threshold – they would be happy to pay the levy. At least one said last night that they would donate more money to the Premier’s Appeal (besides their initial donations), and make public statements to the effect that this because they were exempt from the levy, but wanted to contribute anyway.

That’s certainly something I plan to do. And maybe if enough people do likewise, it will send a message to Abbott and the Opposition that Australians are both capable of compassion and able to see through spin and rhetoric to the heart of an issue.

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