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Off the Bench: In support of the ESL

Opinion

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In our opinion series Off the Bench, two of South Australia’s brightest backbench MPs – one Labor, one Liberal – trade arguments on key issues.

Today, Labor’s Chris Picton makes a case for paying the Emergency Services Levy “with pride”; tomorrow  Liberal MP Stephan Knoll will respond.

Let’s face facts: there has never been a tax that has been popular. Income tax, goods and services tax, capital gains tax, or payroll tax – they’re all about as popular as tropical diseases. Taxes don’t inspire rock ballads, or national holidays, or musicals.

But there’s one tax I think we should all be proud to pay: the SA Emergency Services Levy.

You may say it is “courageous” but I’m defending a tax. Even one brought in by the Liberal Party. I’m defending it because I don’t believe it deserves its bad reputation.

The most important fact first: when you pay your ESL bill you know exactly where the money goes – and it goes to services we all might need one day.

What do you get? One thousand professional Metropolitan Fire Service firefighters. Training and equipment for 13,500 Country Fire Service and 1600 State Emergency Service volunteers. More than 1000 CFS and MFS fire trucks ready to serve you.

The funds raised can only be spent on emergency services, with the vast majority going to the CFS, MFS and SES.

In SA we know how important these services are. Last summer the Sampson Flat bushfires were devastating. South Australians pulled out all stops to lend a hand to those hard-working firefighters and other volunteers. There’s not much that South Aussies wouldn’t have done to help.

This massive bushfire led to an increased cost for the CFS for this year and therefore an increase to the ESL for this year. Partly this is to train the huge influx of new volunteers who have signed up: 1000 more volunteers cost $1,500 a pop to train and ‘kit up’. I think most South Australians view this extra cost as quite reasonable.

However, that increase saw immediate opposition from Liberal Leader Steven Marshall. Just a few weeks ago he was on television at an eastern suburbs supermarket with a clipboard and a petition calling for a lower ESL rate.

On the TV news that night the journalists interviewed some of the shoppers.

I decided to write this article after I saw one man say to Channel 10: “But if it was really needed by emergency services and it all went there, probably OK sure, that’s the way it’s got to be. But from what I can see the Labor Government’s just putting it in their own pocket.”

Clearly some people are suspicious. That’s fair enough because there’s been a lot of public debate and misinformation out there.

But the truth is that every dollar raised through the ESL is accounted for and spent on emergency services. There’s a specific fund every dollar raised goes into. That’s the law. It is reported annually and subject to an annual parliamentary inquiry.

Yet it is so unjustifiably unpopular. There’s an Adelaide man who has refused to pay the levy for the past five years, even though he admits he can afford to pay it. He’s been in all the media and has a Facebook page. He equates his stance with the Boston Tea Party. But he is not leading a moral cause – he is just shortchanging the people who might save his life one day. As long as he doesn’t pay then you and I will cover his share of the state’s firefighting costs.

We are not alone in having an ESL system. Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania all have a similar levy on property for fire and emergency services. The principle is that the more land and property you own the more you might need help putting out a fire.

And people doing it tough are protected. Pensioners and low-income earners have huge discounts on the levy and have been spared increases in recent years. A pensioner in an average Adelaide home pays less than a dollar a week to be covered in case of fires or emergencies.

In addition people who own a country property get a discount on the levy to make sure that country tax dollars don’t subsidise city services (given country fire services are cheaper because of the large number of volunteers).

Former Liberal Leader Iain Evans put it best in his (now released) Cabinet Submission when he and the Liberals first introduced the tax in 1998:

“Everyone in the community has the right to expect access to affordable services (universal access) for the protection of life, property and the environment, and everyone has a responsibility to make a reasonable contribution towards the cost of doing so.”

Overall this is by far one of the smallest areas of taxation. For about every $100 a South Australian pays on the Emergency Services Levy, you pay another $10,000 in other taxes – federal, state and local. Unlike with emergency services there isn’t the same transparency over where all those other taxes go. Wouldn’t that be a good thing if other taxes you pay were just as transparent and accountable as the ESL is?

It is absolutely true that there used to be a wider availability of concessions on the levy (a.k.a. remissions). These were brought in by  Liberal Premier John Olsen as a sweetener after the ETSA sell-off. Eligibility was tightened last year. The concessions were funded by other taxes you pay – such as GST and stamp duty. Unfortunately because of the growth in health costs and federal health cuts the State Government needs to spend those other taxes on our very expensive public hospital system. We didn’t want to make this decision (you wouldn’t do it to be popular!) but without federal support for hospitals we could no longer cross-subsidise the ESL discounts.

The Opposition continue to say that they would reinstate the concessions. Mark my words – if Steven Marshall is elected Premier he will never bring back those discounts. Just like Tony Abbott never reinstated private health rebates for high income earners.

The Liberals have released no plan on how they would pay for the remissions. There’s no magic pudding – either Marshall would have to increase other taxes or cut spending on services. How could he dramatically cut health spending and reopen the inefficient Repat at the same time? Or would he increase less-efficient taxes that would likely hurt small businesses? There should be much more pressure on him to answer these questions in the lead up to the next election.

It is a disgrace that the SA Liberals say to the South Australian public “we will cut your taxes” and “we will stop savings in the health system” at the same time and expect the public won’t notice the rank hypocrisy. I look forward to hearing from Stephan Knoll (in tomorrow’s response to this article) how his party plans to balance the books.

What Labor has done – and what we will continue to do – is help those people who are really struggling: big ESL discounts for pensioners and other concession holders; flexible payments can be arranged for others; a $200 cost of living concession for pensioners. Labor has been, and always will be, the most compassionate party for people doing it tough.

I do have sympathy for the argument put by some that hard-working CFS volunteers should be spared the cost of paying the levy. However this wouldn’t help volunteers who rent their home and it would be inconsistent treatment compared to the many thousands of other generous volunteers across all areas of community life.

Let’s continue to find ways to make volunteering for the CFS more rewarding and acknowledged by the community. And let’s work towards ways that our emergency services can be more efficient and hence reduce pressure on the ESL rate. But we also must end the untruths about where your ESL dollar goes, because every cent helps the lifesaving services that just might save your life one day.

Chris Picton is the Member for Kaurna. Stephan Knoll is the member for Schubert.

In the first instalment of Off the Bench, Knoll and Picton debated the South Australian electoral system

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