Coalition questions $300 power bill rebate as Chalmers says the wealthy not Labor’s ‘focus or concern’

<span>Opposition leader Peter Dutton confirms Coalition will help pass Labor’s 2024 budget energy rebate but has signalled a fight on the Future Made in Australia plan.</span><span>Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images</span>
Opposition leader Peter Dutton confirms Coalition will help pass Labor’s 2024 budget energy rebate but has signalled a fight on the Future Made in Australia plan.Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

The treasurer, Jim Chalmers, has insisted high income earners are not Labor’s “focus or concern”, after he defended not means testing the $300 power bill rebate by arguing cost-of-living pressures were being felt “up and down the income scale”.

On Wednesday the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, confirmed the Coalition would help pass the $3.5bn cost-of-living measure but joined a chorus of criticism that it is poorly targeted including from welfare advocates and billionaire Clive Palmer.

With bipartisan support guaranteeing the $7.8bn cost-of-living package will pass parliament, the biggest political fight over Tuesday’s budget is shaping up to be the 10-year $23bn Future Made in Australia plan.

The Coalition has opposed $13.7bn in production tax incentives for green hydrogen and processed critical minerals as a “handout to billionaires” and the Greens are reserving their right to use their Senate balance of power position to put more pressure on Labor to withdraw support for coal and gas.

Dutton said on Wednesday the Coalition will support the $300 rebate which will “be welcomed by some”, but complained that families and small businesses had “faced thousands of dollars’ worth of increase in their energy bills”.

“The government wants to buy itself an interest rate reduction coming up to the election,” he told ABC TV. “But, really, as most credible economic [commentators] have pointed out, this is an inflationary budget and it is going to make it harder for interest rates to come back down.”

Dutton disapproved of the fact the payment was not means tested, and said he could not understand why people on higher incomes needed that assistance.

“Frankly I think the money would be better provided to those more in need. But the government, as was the case for Labor in Queensland facing an election, they’re splashing out cash because they know they have a huge problem on their hands.”

Related: Federal budget 2024 – winners and losers summary

The Coalition also suggested in question time that people who own multiple homes, such as holiday houses, could receive multiple $300 rebates.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, did not rule this out on Channel Nine’s Today and again in parliament, but he suggested the Coalition was seeking to “crab walk away” from supporting the measure.

On Wednesday Chalmers told the National Press Club post-budget lunch the government had made the $300 rebate universal because it was the “most efficient way to give cost-of-living relief” to low and middle-income households.

Limiting the payment by income “would take time and money” and require changes to allow data-sharing between the tax office and energy retailers, he said.

“People on the highest incomes are not our focus, they’re not our concern.”

Related: Lenore Taylor and Karen Middleton unpack budget 2024 – podcast

The Coalition’s support guarantees the cost-of-living package, including rent assistance and medicine price freeze, will sail through parliament. But the opposition has signalled a fight on the Future Made in Australia plan, with Dutton confirming on Wednesday it will not support production tax credits.

“I just think people like Clive Palmer and Twiggy Forest and others … are great business people, they know how to milk a pretty weak government – and I think that’s what they’re doing at the moment,” he said.

“Those projects should be able to stand alone and we support them – but now with taxpayers money, splashing billions of dollars.”

The Greens have said they support green minerals and metals, but are reserving the right to use the Future Made in Australia bill as leverage to push back against Labor’s controversial gas strategy.

Dutton will deliver his budget reply on Thursday evening, but refused to say if he is ready to release the Coalition’s delayed nuclear energy policy, which would probably require significant taxpayer support to establish civilian nuclear energy in Australia.

Dutton also criticised the “unprecedented” level of immigration with “1.67 million people coming in over a five-year period” at a time of “11-year lows in building starts”. In April, Guardian Australia revealed the Coalition is working on a policy to link the net migration rate to housing construction.

Despite the 10% increase in the maximum rate of rent assistance, the Australian Council of Social Services noted the $300 energy rebate “will be the only cash support the majority of people on jobseeker and youth allowance will receive”.

“Extending it to everyone – regardless of income – is extraordinarily wasteful,” Acoss said in a statement. “It does not target support to people most in need.”

Related: Federal budget 2024 – winners and losers summary

On Wednesday Palmer said the rebate is a “stunt which proves how out of touch the government really is”. “If it was done properly and means tested, more could go to the families who need it most,” he posted to X.

On Tuesday evening the independent senator, Jacqui Lambie, told ABC TV that just as she is “not comfortable with people like myself and the super rich out there that got a $4,500 tax cut” she disapproves of the $300 going to every household.

“Are we back in Covid days? We’re just chucking money, left, right and centre. You’re too lazy to do some means testing. We don’t need $300, I can assure you.”

The independent senator, David Pocock, said Australia would “be much smarter as a country investing in household electrification where households could be saving $2,000 to $5,000 every year going forward”.