FALLOUT continues to escalate over the Abbott government budget's potential to impact rural and regional Australians disproportionately.
This week, Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey was forced to defend his comments relating to the fuel excise increase, while the Coalition’s political headache over the Medicare co-payment continued to swell.
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said “the North Shore-based Treasurer is completely out of touch” after Mr Hockey said in an interview that the “poorest people don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far in many cases”.
“Most of the poorest electorates in Australia are in rural and regional Australia and people here do drive cars”
Hunter MP Mr Fitzgibbon said rural and regional residents were angered by Mr Hockey’s “insensitive broken fuel tax promise comments”.
“In the bush we lack public transport and most places we go – to shop, to work, to learn, to socialise and even to look for work – are a long way away,” he said.
“Most of the poorest electorates in Australia are in rural and regional Australia and people here do drive cars – often older vehicles with poor fuel efficiency.”
But Mr Hockey stood by his comments in various media interviews, saying Australian Bureau of Statistics data underpinned his argument. The data states the highest 20 per cent of household incomes pay three times more in fuel taxes than the lowest 20pc of household incomes, he said, and higher household incomes usually have more cars and tend to drive further.
“Now, that is a general statistic, but it also makes a mockery of the Labor Party's claim that somehow the budget is being unfair because in fact, the Labor Party and the Greens - which have previously supported increased fuel taxes - are now opposing them even though higher-income households pay more fuel tax,” he said.
Mr Hockey’s comments also ignited reaction from Motoring Enthusiasts Party Senator Ricky Muir.
The new Victorian Senator said in an ABC radio interview that people in regional areas generally earned less, had limited access to public transport and travelled longer distances.
“We can't all hop on cows and ride into town I don't think,” he said.
“There's been plenty of times when I've had to think twice about not only filling the car up but whether I really should be making a certain drive or not.
“You sometimes have to make a bit of a sacrifice.
“There might be a friend you want to see who is unwell or something, but you've got to weigh it up - I need to do the shopping on this certain day, should I or shouldn't I?
“So yeah, I've certainly been there, I've lived that.”
The government’s controversial reintroduction of an indexed increase in the fuel excise scheme is expected to generate $4.2 billion in revenue over four years.
Farmers and other off-road vehicle and machinery users were spared from that increase with $2 billion set to be paid back, via the diesel fuel rebate.
Tony Abbott says the excise, restored after 12 years, will increase depending on the price of petrol with the additional money hypothecated to road spending.
Regional NSW MP and former shadow agriculture minister John Cobb had a more measured attitude towards the fuel excise increase.
“This increase is not a big one and nobody wants it,” he told ABC radio.
“I don't want it, but nobody wants a set of books that are cooked either, so they do have to be fixed. I really don't know if there is a good way of getting across an increase on what people pay by way of a fuel levy.
“However, I guess we are in a position of having to fix the budget. Labor ruined it and the responsibility and some unpopularity for what you do is a burden we have to bear because we were elected to do it.”
Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen accused the Treasurer of releasing figures selectively on the fuel excise increase, “in a valiant attempt to try and defend his argument”.
He said Mr Hockey didn’t release figures from the same report which showed that people from low income households spend 4.5pc of their incomes of petrol and people with higher incomes spend a much lower percentage than that.
“The Treasurer should just admit he got it wrong,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the Abbott government budget impacted rural and regional Australians “disproportionately” and was forcing a rethink on various measures, including health and education.
The $7 Medicare co-payment has been criticised by the Rural Doctors Association of Australia predicting it would have potentially “severe” impacts on rural residents.
But Mr Hockey would not be drawn on whether the government was considering a compromise on the GP co-payment. He said the Coalition was being “very measured and very reasonable”.
“Politics is inevitably the art of compromise but you can’t give away your principles,” he said.
“The principles that we have laid down are that we want to fix the Budget, we want to get Australia back to surplus, we want our country to live within our means and if we do that, then you are going to get the jobs and the prosperity that make the difference in every household right across the nation.
“Of course, if independent Senators or even – to the surprise of many – if the Labor Party and the Greens are prepared to be reasonable, we are prepared to engage in those discussions but so far, some of them are just not prepared to engage.”
Mr Hockey said every dollar from the additional fuel excise would help to build new roads, particularly in outer-metropolitan areas in Sydney with the Westconnex project, and Melbourne’s East West Link and Brisbane’s Gateway Motorway project.
The Treasurer also objected to being portrayed by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten as the “cigar-chomping Foghorn Leghorn of Australian politics”.
“It is almost though as if the Treasurer believes that poor people should be sleeping in their cars, not driving their cars,” Mr Shorten said.
But Mr Hockey retorted the Labor Party “is always going to run this personality politics (and) good luck to them”.
“Others will join in - I don't care about that commentary,” he said.
“I care about dealing with the facts and ensuring that we have a strong economy and the best thing we can do in Australia for lowest income households is make sure they have the opportunity to get a job and a well-paying job.
“Everything the Labor Party and the Greens are doing at the moment is making it more difficult to create those jobs.
“They are doing everything they can to make it harder and not easier for the economy to perform.
“The bottom line is, if we do not make our spending affordable now, then the costs of dealing with it in the future is going to be much greater.”
Environment Minister Greg Hunt rejected a “proposition” cabinet ministers in the first term Coalition government were having regular “disaster moments” trying to sell the government’s agenda.
Mr Hunt said the government’s key point was, “Australia needs to live within its means”.
“Sadly we were taken from a position of $20 billion in surplus to $50 billion in deficit and most significantly that stretches out over the coming decade so as we'll end up with a three quarts of a trillion dollar or $666-odd-billion deficit or cumulative debt,” he said.
“What does it mean?
“It means that we need to take some steps now to ensure that one generation isn't stealing from the next and that's the big story.
“Everybody should be focused on sustainability of the budget and of the society and of the environment.”
Mr Shorten said Mr Hockey was “flying in and flying out on bended knee trying to get crossbenchers to accept his unfair Budget”.
“I think Joe Hockey should apologise to Australians for insulting them by saying that you don't have to worry about the tax if you don't drive a car,” he said.
“Joe Hockey needs to come back to planet earth from planet Hockey.
“He needs to help real Australians meet their cost of living pressures, not be a further unfair source of pressure on Australians.
“I think if the government had integrity they would offer this budget up and have an election and see if people agree with what they want.
“It is a rotten budget, it is unfair and Australians have seen through the Abbott government's budget.”