Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has escalated a federal budget fight over migration by accusing Labor of making life harder for working people on low incomes with plans for 1.5 million migrants who will put pressure on housing, transport and wages.
Dutton seized on the migration forecasts as a test for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese after the federal government chose to review major road and rail projects rather than reveal a funding package for new construction in this week’s federal budget.
But the prime minister dismissed the attack as a hypocrisy because Dutton had spoken in favour of migration last year when Labor lifted the permanent intake from 160,000 to 195,000 a year in a compromise with employers and unions.
Dutton intensified his warnings about migration in his budget reply speech that called for a new approach to housing such as the Coalition’s proposal to let people draw down their superannuation to gain a deposit for their first homes.
He warned Australians that the “big-spending budget” would fuel inflation but he did not call for specific spending cuts and chose instead to warn that higher migration would push up prices and make the cost-of-living crisis worse.
“We all support a well-planned migration program – and that’s the history of Coalition governments,” he told the House of Representatives on Thursday night.
“But over five years, net overseas migration will see our population increase by 1.5 million people.
“It’s the biggest migration surge in our country’s history and it’s occurring amid a housing and rental crisis. Australians are struggling to rent or purchase a property now.”
Dutton promised to “sensibly manage” migration but did not name a preferred forecast for the years ahead, making it difficult to consider an alternative Coalition policy when Labor emphasises the numbers are a forecast and not a target.
The government has announced changes that could slow the intake including a higher income threshold for migrants and a cut to the working hours for foreign students, while also promising decisions later this year to act on a review that called for changes to the visa system.
In his central accusation against the government, the Opposition Leader said “millions of middle Australians – the backbone of our country – are worse off”, and claimed they “won’t receive one cent” from this year’s extra spending.
Dutton did not support or oppose the government’s $4.9 billion increase in JobSeeker payments and other income support but argued instead for the unemployed to work more hours without losing benefits.
Speaking on the ABC after his speech, he said the Coalition would allow the unemployed to work an extra 10 hours every fortnight and that this could give them more than the government plan to increase income support by $40 per fortnight.
The proposal sets up a negotiating point with Labor on the JobSeeker increase, with Dutton telling the ABC his approach would encourage people into the job market.
“If you allow people to work a little bit extra, to get an understanding of the job market, the employer to get an understanding of their skills, then I think we can reduce the number of people on welfare benefits,” he told the ABC.
“That’s better for them, it gives them more disposable income, it helps the economy, and it helps business as well.”
He endorsed the government decision to lift the JobSeeker rate for those aged over 55 and backed the increase in rent assistance in Tuesday night’s budget.
On defence policy, he criticised the government for scaling back the purchase of infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled howitzers as part of the savings to fund the AUKUS submarine project, but he did not promise to restore that spending.
Dutton backed some of the government’s budget measures including $5.7 billion for Medicare, spending on new medicines, funding for aged care and a new target for the National Disability Insurance Scheme that aims to save $74.3 billion over a decade.
On gambling policy, he signalled a possible deal on reform by saying he would like to ban sports bet advertising during broadcasts and for one hour before and after a game.
But he took aim at Albanese and Treasurer Jim Chalmers over the stage three tax cuts that will cost $69 billion in their first three years from fiscal 2025, saying Labor should commit to keep the full package to ensure workers take home more of their pay.
“Labor has been silent on its promise to keep stage three of the Coalition’s legislated tax plan in full,” he said.
The tax cuts commence in July next year, leading Dutton to warn there was “time enough for Labor to break another promise” by changing the stage three package before it takes effect.
He also claimed the government had “axed” the low and middle income tax offset devised by the Coalition and worth up to $1,500 a year for 10 million workers who earn up to $126,000 a year. He did not pledge to restore the offset, which cost $12 billion last year.
The end of the LAMITO was part of its design under the Coalition, with no decision needed by Labor since the last election to bring it to a halt. The government chose not to pass a law to reintroduce the Coalition’s tax offset.
Dutton also rejected the $1.1 billion increase in the heavy vehicle user charge over five years and labelled it a “truckie tax” that would be passed on to consumers, while making a broader claim that Labor was taxing Australians too much.
“Labor has abandoned the Coalition’s tax cap of 23.9 per cent,” he said. “We will restore the cap.”
However, the budget papers show the government will keep tax to 23.9 per cent of GDP in fiscal 2024 before it falls to 23.3 per cent in subsequent years.
The Opposition Leader made a series of policy pledges such as undoing a Labor decision to cut the number of Medicare-subsidised psychological sessions from 10 to 20, as well as helping women by investing $4 million in Ovarian Cancer Australia.
He said a Coalition government would spend $5 million on a review of items on the Medicare Benefits Schedule for women, saying this could look at treatment for conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome.
He also vowed to reintroduce the Cashless Debit Card for welfare recipients if the Coalition returned to government under his leadership.
“We will lower your taxes,” Dutton said in his concluding remarks.
“We will bring back smaller government which stops interfering in your life and telling you how to live it. We will pursue sensible policy and, unlike Labor, which shows favouritism to the few, we will govern for all Australians.
“We’re just shy of the first anniversary of this government, and I leave this question with the Australian people: are you better off today than you were 12 months ago when Labor was elected?
“You deserve a better government – a far better government. And that’s exactly what I will give you under a Coalition government that I lead.”
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