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Monday, 1 June 1998
Page: 4286

Mr COSTELLO (Treasurer) (3:52 PM) —One has to be amused by the performance of the person who just stood opposite at the dispatch box, the member for Hotham (Mr Crean). Never before would we have seen a censure or purported censure so lacking in all conviction. There was no conviction in that speech whatsoever. There was no support from the backbench. Never before would we have seen a censure so lacking in substance. No substantive issue whatsoever was raised by the member for Hotham. Never before would we have seen a censure with no moment. Was there any moment in the House that this was somehow significant, that this was a serious charge being mounted against the Prime Minister (Mr Howard)? Never before would we have seen a censure with no significance and on no substantive policy issue whatsoever.

The member for Hotham is so devoid of policy that he trafficked material which had been downloaded from the DAS computer to try to look into travel allowances and travel claims. Don't tell me he can't take it! He got on the Channel 9 program and, when he was asked whether or not he had downloaded from the DAS computer, he made out that he had not. He was trafficking around. I call him the Arthur Daley of the federal parliament.

Then he set up a little unit in his office to go out and look through Senator Parer's tax affairs. Do you think this man is interested in policy? Is he interested in budgets? Is he interested in tax? Is he interested in policy? Is he interested in debt? Is he interested in inflation? No. He has got a little unit in his office that runs around after the tax affairs of Senator Parer—again, a matter of great moment!

Then, of course, there was the Menzies Research Centre. Remember the Menzies Research Centre? He fed it out to the Bulletin. Another attempt to blackguard the reputation of the Prime Minister. Why? Why does the Labor Party invest so much time in trying to blackguard the reputation of the Prime Minister? It is not only because they have no policy but also because they know that the integrity and the honesty of the Prime Minister stand absolutely unchallenged. That is why they invest so much time in trying to blackguard the Prime Minister. They know that compared with them he stands unchallenged in the credibility and honesty stakes.

Mr Melham interjecting

Mr COSTELLO —Even by way of interjection from the shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs. `You are supposed to be different,' he said—and so we are. The absolute outrage from the Labor Party when it appears that the government is different and does take a higher position!

So we have this concerted attempt by the little dirty tricks department that runs around in the ex-ACTU officer's office. It runs after Parer, runs after the Menzies Research Centre and gets up on these lacking-conviction censures—over what? Over a great policy issue? Does a great policy issue turn on any of this? No. Does any great policy issue that the public will be engaged in turn on this? No. This is allegedly a matter of great moment as the Howard government consultative task force interplays—

Mr Crean —Look at the press tomorrow.

Mr COSTELLO —That was a very interesting interjection. He said, `Look at the papers tomorrow.' Is that what you said?

Mr Crean —No, I said, `Look at the press tomorrow.'

Mr COSTELLO —`Look at the press tomorrow,' he said. I hope the journalists heard that interjection: `Look at the press tomorrow.' It is an age-old tactic, Mr Speaker: move a censure, get up and throw around the words `lie' and `deceit' under public interest immunity and try to get them into the press tomorrow. That is as far as you think. `Look at the press tomorrow,' he said. When he said, `Look at the press tomorrow,' he was saying that this is all a media stunt to get the headline into the press tomorrow. Do you know what the press ought to report tomorrow? `Another stunt—Crean. Another blackguard—Crean. More dealing in deceit and lies from Crean.'

The Prime Minister got up here in answer to a question on Tuesday last week. The question was:

Is it true that your own government members' task force on taxation, which you have touted as a great community consultative vehicle on your tax changes, was told not to make recommendations to the government?

When he answered that question he answered it in utmost truthfulness—to the best of his knowledge and in utmost truthfulness, as he has said. There was no attempt whatsoever to mislead this House—in fact, the misleading of the House came in the cleverly phrased question. It was basically an attempt to say that the Prime Minister was not interested in his consultative task force recommendations. I can tell you that not only is the Prime Minister interested in their recommendation but he has a meeting with them at 5 o'clock this afternoon to receive their report.

Mr Crean —And he knew of the instructions.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Hotham has made his contribution.

Mr COSTELLO —What do you think is going to be in their report? A big blank page? It is going to be a report which is full of advice for the government as a result—

Mr Crean —Recommendations?

Mr COSTELLO —What is a recommendation?

Mr Crean —Did you tell them not to make any?

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Hotham will remain silent.

Mr COSTELLO —What if the task force says—

Mr SPEAKER —The Treasurer will speak through the chair.

Mr COSTELLO —`Your tax reform package should include the following issues,' or, `We have heard from the following people'?

Mr Crean interjecting

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Hotham will remain silent.

Mr COSTELLO —Do you call that a recommendation? Do you? Do you call that a recommendation?

Mr SPEAKER —The Treasurer will respond through the chair.

Mr COSTELLO —What a goose! What a pathetic argument. We are now having this semantic argument about the difference between a report and a recommendation, are we? We have got this huge report from the taxation task force consultative committee which is coming to the Prime Minister full of advice—99 per cent of it is, I am sure, correct, but there will no doubt be some items that the government does not agree with—and we are down here in the parliament having a semantic debate about what constitutes a recommendation.

It has always been absolutely clear what the purpose of the tax consultative task force is. The Prime Minister announced the formation of the government's tax policies on 13 August 1997, and the government's plan to reform and modernise the Australian taxation system. He said it would be a two-stage process. He said:

Progress in this area will be undertaken by the Taxation TaskForce, headed by the Treasurer, with representatives of my department, the Australian Taxation Office, the Treasurer's office and the Cabinet Policy Unit.

He then went down and he laid out five principles as to what the government would be guided by in relation to tax reform:

a. There should be no increase in the overall tax burden;

b. Any new taxation system should involve major reductions in personal income tax with special regard for the taxation treatment of families;

c. Consideration should be given to a broad based,indirect tax to replace some or all of the existing taxes;

d. There should be appropriate compensation for those deserving of special consideration; and

e. Reform of Commonwealth/State financial relations must be addressed.

He then set up a second group, which he said would enable a heightened process of consultation with interest groups. He said:

The government will be assisted in this respect by a special task force of government members.

That was what was announced on 13 August 1997. On 4 September, the Prime Minister then announced the government members task force on taxation. He announced all of those that were due to be part of it. He said this:

The task force—

completely consistent with that—

has been established to assist in the process of public consultation. The task force will take public submissions . . . public submissions should bear in the mind the government's view.

Mr Crean —Did you tell them not to make recommendations?

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Hotham has made his contribution and will remain silent.

Mr COSTELLO —The task force will take public submissions and report to the government, as was said on 4 September 1997. Unless there was any doubt on this, I then issued a press release on 23 October 1997. And what did I say?

Mr Crean —`Don't make recommendations'.

Mr COSTELLO —Did I? Did I say that?

Mr Crean —Do you deny it?

Mr COSTELLO —Did I say, `Don't make recommendations'? Did I?

Mr SPEAKER —I warn the member for Hotham

Mr COSTELLO —Another false claim! Another false claim.

Mr Crean —Deny it!

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Hotham will leave the House for one hour under standing order 304A.

The honourable member for Hotham thereupon withdrew from the chamber.

Mr COSTELLO —We are not much impressed by the bullyboy tactics of ex-ACTU presidents in this parliament. When I released a press release on 23 October 1997, again it was entirely clear what the tax consultative task force was to do. The government's tax consultative task force has commenced liaison with the community; the task force has been established to assist in the process of consultation; the task force will be taking submissions; the task force will take submissions on ways to achieve a fair and better modern taxation system; those making submissions should bear in mind the government's view that—and five principles were set out. So here we have a policy group, as announced by the Prime Minister, which is working on tax reform options; we have a consultative group which is consulting with the public, and the consultative group is reporting back to the government at 5 o'clock this afternoon on what the public has submitted it wants in a taxation package.

What does the opposition say? `Oh,' the opposition says, `big point here.' When this task force reports—with a report which is about as thick as the two fingers of the member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey)—the question is whether that advice, whether that consultation, whether that report can be also characterised as recommendations. Of course there is going to be advice in that report. I have not been privileged enough to see it as yet, but it was always entirely clear, as the Prime Minister said, that this group was going to have a free hand to consult, that this group was going to have a free hand to report—that was the whole essence of this group—and that it was going to work in tandem with the task force group.

The opposition gets up here in this confected appearance to try to make something out of the internal processes of the coalition and how it works. What turns on it? In what way will this affect the life of any Australian? In what way will this see that Australians who are paying mortgages on their homes will have a situation which is changing? In what way will it change the way in which the taxation system operates? In what way will it determine the outcome of tax reform in this country? This is one of the most arcane, inconsequential, semantic disputes that you could possibly muscle up, and it has been muscled up because this is an opposition which is failing to engage in any policy discussion whatsoever.

The Prime Minister's integrity in this matter stands absolutely unchallenged. And we will repudiate any attempt by the blackguarding of the Australian Labor Party to go around and try to put aspersions on him. If you want to see the kinds of aspersions that actually affect people, let us think about what people are told before elections on the state of the Commonwealth budget. This is something that can really affect people. What were people given to understand in February 1996 when the then Minister for Finance went out and said that the budget was in balance? That had the capacity to affect people. It had the capacity to affect people in terms of the government's fiscal position. It had the capacity to affect people in terms of their vote. It had the capacity to affect them in relation to their mortgage interest rates. What do you say about a finance minister who, on the eve of federal election, goes out and says that the budget is in balance?

Government members —He's a cheat! He's a liar!

Mr COSTELLO —What do you really say about person like that?

Mrs Crosio interjecting

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Prospect will remain silent.

Mrs Crosio interjecting

Mr SPEAKER —I warn the member for Prospect!

Mr COSTELLO —What motivation could you have on the eve of an election to make that statement when the budget was then $10,000 million in the red? Let us go to motive here. And let us ask: who had the motives?

Mr Melham —And the forged letters.

Mr COSTELLO —And the forged letters—quite right—on the eve of the 1996 election which were put out by the member for Gellibrand (Mr Willis). I have had the decency not to refer to that in this parliament until you raised it. What were the motivations on the eve of the 1996 election?

Let me ask you about other motivations in relation to policies on the eve of an election. What motivation would you have before an election to legislate income tax cuts and take them away afterwards? What motivation would you have?

Government members —To deceive.

Mr COSTELLO —To deceive. Did anything turn on that? Yes. What turned on that was millions of Australians' pay packets. He actually put into legislation an income tax cut and then, after the election, took it away. Was that an arcane dispute about what constitutes a recommendation or a report in a backbench consultation process before an election? No, that wasn't. That was an assurance which was put to millions of Australians—that, on the re-election of a Labor government in 1993, they would get a reduction in their personal income tax. Did they ever get it? No. That was not l-a-w, that was a l-i-e. Do you know what happened? It worked. It got the Labor Party back in the 1993 election. In the 1993 election, Labor stole an election on deceit. Labor tried to do it again in 1996, and Labor was caught.

So don't give me any of this smokescreen about the Prime Minister's integrity. Don't give me any of this smokescreen about Labor being holier than thou. Don't give us any of this smokescreen about how the Labor Party is interested in standards. The Labor Party is not interested in standards. The Labor Party can't hold a wick to the honesty of the Prime Minister. The Labor Party can't put a torch to it. This censure should be utterly defeated and repudiated. And we do it!

Question put:

That the motion (Mr Beazley's ) be agreed to.