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Monday, 23 November 1998
Page: 384

Senator COOK (3:03 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Assistant Treasurer (Senator Kemp) to questions without notice asked today.

The government says that it wants its GST legislation through this Senate by 1 July—before those senators elected at the last federal election on 3 October have a chance to take their seats in this chamber. It wants the legislation, it says, as a matter of urgency. It claims it has a mandate. It claims it is able to answer the issues that ordinary Australians are concerned about in a GST. That is why it has spent $17 million of taxpayers' money in glossy publications—to try to force-feed a GST to the Australian electorate. Today in question time we asked the responsible minister—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! There is far too much noise in the chamber.

Senator COOK —Thank you, Madam Deputy President. I notice that the Assistant Treasurer is now leaving the Senate chamber. Well may he do so. We asked him in question time today six questions that occur to ordinary Australians about what this government intends to do in the fine print of how it would implement a GST. He answered none of them—not a single one of them. He could not, he certainly would not, and he absolutely did not, answer any of those questions at all. These are not difficult questions to answer. Australians would expect their government to have, at its fingertips, the answers to these questions.

Let us go to the first question that Senator Hutchins asked today. He wanted to know what the definition of `excessive profits' would be, so that if a company wanted to excessively profiteer from the introduction of a GST, they could be brought to book. That is a fair question. If we are policing the introduction of a GST to make sure Australians are not ripped off, then what is the difference between `reasonable profits' and `excessive profits'? Can the government answer that? It has no definition for `excessive' or, if it does, it was not telling us today; certainly, by his conduct, the minister does not know.

We asked him, `Will the banks pass on any savings to their customers that they receive by getting a reduction in the GST?'—a reasonable question—`and if they do not, will the government ask them to; and if they will not, will the government force them to?' It is not as if banks are running poor in this country. It is not as if people who use banks are not entitled to consideration. Did he answer that question? No, of course he did not. It is a reasonable question for Australians to be asking.

My colleague, Senator Stephen Conroy, today asked the minister a question about booksellers. The major chains are discounting titles in Australia in order to attract customers through the door. Because they are discounting at lower rates than booksellers on the corner of every shopping precinct in Australia can sell them, they will be paying a lower GST on the same book as the corner store bookseller will sell that book for. Firstly, is that fair commercial practice? That is a good question. The second question is: why should they have to pay more or why should their customers have to pay more? The government claims to be a government of small business. Booksellers are small business people and they are jacking up the prices for the small business sector over the prices that the major corporate chains can charge. Is that fair commercial practice?

The minister did not know what a going concern was or what the terms would be, in tax law, of selling a farm which is a non-going concern. This is a very topical question in New Zealand where this very issue is being debated in the New Zealand courts. What is the Australian government's answer to that?

The minister could not answer in respect of private and public housing rents. And, of course, it could not give any explanation as to why its $7,000 first home buyers scheme—which will not even pay the cost of stamp duty, let alone sales commission, solicitor's fees, mortgage approval fees, building inspection fees or pest inspection fees—is adequate compensation.

There is a case for this Senate now to say, `We won't proceed with this legislation until we get some straight answers in this chamber.' These are questions Australians want to know the answers to. It is for the government to provide those answers. (Time expired)