Due to the way the government wanted to order Senate business in the final week, the formal Valedictory speeches of departing Senators were not actually the last speech for many of us. Below is the text of what was my actual final speech (and the final words spoken by a Democrat in the Senate). I took the chance to make one more (probably futile) call for some accuracy in reporting about immigration matters, support a couple of suggestions on taxation which I’d recently read on other blogs and pay a final tribute to a few Democrat Senators I had not had time to personally acknowledge in my formal Valedictory.
ADJOURNMENT: Immigration, Taxation, Australian Democrats
Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (7.27 p.m.)—Mr President, as you would know, Thursday evening is usually the time when an opportunity is given to speak to government documents. As some senators might know, that is something that I often take the opportunity to do in the interests of accountability. It is not something I have been able to do in recent times because, as often happens at the end of sittings, the opportunity to speak to government documents gets cast aside. It is probably a great relief to many senators that I will not have the opportunity to speak to documents in future.
I do want to take this final opportunity to speak on a couple of issues of continuing importance. The first is immigration. As I mentioned earlier this week when I spoke in the appropriations debate, immigration is a crucial issue. It is really important that the debate is conducted in a way that is balanced and factual. There are many valid arguments to be put, as with many issues, but we need to try and keep the debate balanced and reasoned. I was very disappointed to see in my home town newspaper, the Courier-Mail, over the last couple of days quite a distorted portrayal of an attempt by the government to give consideration to dealing with what is an entrenched problem of people who are living validly in the community for years without work rights or any access to health or welfare benefits. They are living on nothing but charity for years, living lawfully in the community.
The previous government acknowledged this as a problem and had been trying to work on it for some time. It is a difficult problem, which is why finding a solution to it is hard. But to simply run a page 3 article with a big headline saying ‘Dole payment plan for illegal migrants’ is both false and inflammatory, as is reporting the next day that these proposals have split the community. If you put a big banner headline saying ‘Dole payment plan for illegal migrants’, of course you are going to get community concern. Of course you will get community unease about it. But if you report it factually and without the sensationalism then community attitudes will be different. There will still be different attitudes about how to deal with it because it is a difficult issue, but to just say illegal migrants are all going to be here on the dole indefinitely, as the articles imply, is unnecessarily inflammatory, destructively inflammatory and false.
Firstly, what has to be said over and over again about the phrase ‘illegal immigrants’—because it was used in both headlines yesterday and today and in the text of the story—is they are not illegal immigrants. If people are here on bridging visas, then that is a visa and they are lawfully in the community. Their status is temporary. Their status is unresolved but they are lawfully in the community. As with any other visa, a bridging visa has some rights attached to it. A tourist visa does not have a work right, a Medicare attachment or welfare rights. A bridging visa E does not have these rights either; some other visas do. We need to consider the impact on people who are in the community lawfully on any sort of bridging visa for prolonged periods of time.
Let us look at the flip side: we have people living here for years while their cases are resolved, relying on charity, sometimes with children who are unable to attend school during that time. I know people in this situation in Brisbane; let alone elsewhere. I have met many of them over the years. What happens to them? They rely totally on charity. It drains those charities, which are indirectly in many cases taxpayer funded. People inevitably consider whether they will work illegally, which is risky for them, not helpful for our economy and reduces the nation’s tax take. It means that people are likely to work for less than appropriate wages and often in unsafe conditions. If they were given some limited capacity to work, as is attached to many other visas, they would not work illegally. It would reduce the drain on charities and other services. They would have jobs. They would be contributing taxes to the economy. They would in many cases be meeting the existing skills and labour shortages. We are trying to bring in hundred of thousands of people a year to meet labour shortages when we have got people in the community who are not allowed to work, and then the newspapers want to smear them. It is ludicrous.
This not only is destructive but makes it very difficult for any government to try and resolve the issue. I know it is easy to score points on this stuff but I urge the opposition to try and resist from doing that and at least look at the facts. Of course you have to look at people trying to game the system and making frivolous claims so they can stay here and work. You could put limits on how much they can work or the length of time they have to be here before they are entitled to work, or only give them access to Medicare, not social security payments—there are all sorts of ways of doing it—but do not call them illegal immigrants when they are not and do not suggest that most of them are false. People do not put themselves into these situations oftentimes without a reason. That sort of reality has to be recognised.
I also want to talk briefly on the issue of tax. Tax has caused a bit of grief for the Democrats over the years but in reviewing taxation, as the federal government is doing, I want to lend my support to ideas dealing with some of the broader issues about tax raised by Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh recently, including what Mr Gans calls ‘the society gap’—the reality these days where we means test benefits based on household income but means test taxes on the basis of individual income. This creates a lot of distortions, inequities and anomalies. Again, there is not necessarily an easy solution, although one idea is to look at some sort of broader consideration of households as a unit, whether legally in an incorporated sense or some other less formal sense for tax purposes and then look at income and deductions for things like child care and household expenditure as a group to try and match the reality, rather than having this continuing mismatch.
I also support, as has been Democrat policy for a long time, looking at making income tax returns optional so people can opt out and forgo any refund. This system exists in other countries and it saves an enormous amount in terms of bureaucracy. I also support the need for more data, an example of which was mentioned and noted in the recent Senate committee on housing affordability. We have enormous tax expenditures—for example, forgone revenue and some of our capital gains tax exemptions in that area alone are estimated to be tens of billions of dollars. We do not even know how much they cost or what the opportunity cost is. There are lots of things that we still do not know and are not getting enough data about, and I think we need to put a few more resources—and I know at the moment the government is looking at cutting back here and there—into this area. We have to look at those macroissues in the tax system, rather than just bits and pieces within it, although they are also important.
In closing, I want to acknowledge a few more senators, whom I have not had the opportunity to speak about, even though I have spoken a lot in recent times—there are always time limits. I want to acknowledge a number of Democrat senators who perhaps have not had proper recognition. I think it is a real tragedy that Jack Evans, a Western Australian, who was a foundation member of this party and is still here at the end, only served in this chamber for one truncated period—18 or 20 months. He got caught in the double dissolutions and the vagaries of preference flows. He would have been a great contributor if he had had longer. I say the same about former senator Karin Sowada from New South Wales and indeed the person she replaced, Senator Paul McLean, as well as Jean Jenkins from Western Australia—people who think the Democrats somehow shifted left from where we were in the eighties might want to have a look at some of Jean Jenkins’s record, not to mention Norm Sanders, from that time. I would suggest they were more radical than any of us here now—and that is not a criticism.
I thank all the other Democrats over the years and I particularly acknowledge Senator Sid Spindler, someone else who I think people thought probably spoke more often than he needed to but he was a great legislator. I recall sitting up in the gallery here when he finished at the end of June 1996, not expecting I would be walking out the same way 12 years later. He died earlier this year. He is sadly missed as are the other now departed Democrat senators: Robert Bell, Janine Haines, Don Chipp and David Vigor. I pay tribute again to Sid Spindler’s contribution. I thank the Democrat membership and the people of Queensland for the honour and privilege of serving them—I like to think well—for so long.