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Monday, 19 June 2000
Page: 15056

Senator MACKAY (12:50 PM) —The minister is obviously so interested in his own legislation that he was not listening to whom I was quoting in terms of the nature of the questions we have been asking. I was in fact quoting the Clerk of the Senate, Mr Harry Evans, who the minister asserts—and I wrote this down—is `quite clearly wrong'. I will repeat the whole thing. We sought advice from the Clerk of the Senate as to whether our questions were in order or not. We provided the Clerk with a list of questions seeking advice. This was your suggestion, Minister Macdonald, which we took up. The response I got from Harry Evans, Clerk of the Senate, was this. Perhaps the minister can listen carefully. It states:

Senator Mackay, your questions on the local government bill are in order. The only basis on which they could be out of order is irrelevance to the bill, and they are clearly relevant to the bill. I see no other problems with the questions.

I also refer the minister to Odgers' Australian Senate Practice. I am not sure whether he is familiar with this, but if he is he should look at the last paragraph of page 262, which states:

As with relevance in debate ... and in relation to amendments to the motion for the second reading ... the requirement of relevance is interpreted liberally, so that senators have maximum freedom to move amendments. In determining relevance, the question is: “What is the subject matter of the bill, and does this amendment deal with that subject matter?”. The long title of a bill can be taken as an indication of its subject matter ...

The minister has been around a bit longer than me, so he ought to know about that.

Also, I say that the minister cannot have it both ways. He cannot say on the one hand, `We have not been approached before with these questions and concerns,' and then read out a list of estimates hearings at which he allegedly answered the questions. The minister cannot have it both ways. Interestingly, we had a meander through the parentage of Senator McLucas and a meander through cotton and fossils and so on, so the minister clearly regards all these matters as germane to the bill but he does not regard questions about the impact of the GST on local government as relevant. Minister, I am sorry, the Senate does. The Senate regards them as relevant, Odgers regards them as relevant, the Clerk of the Senate regards them as relevant. Everybody—your government—would regard them as relevant but, if they do not, that is something we will take up in another forum. So everybody except you, Minister, is saying these are relevant. Minister, I say this to you: yes, we have guaranteed the passage of this bill by 30 June 2000. We will do that, but we will not do it in such a way as to let you and your government off the hook with regard to what is happening with local government and the GST or local government and financial assistance grants. We will sit here until we get answers. This is the view of the opposition and of the Leader of the Opposition, so I suggest you start answering some questions, otherwise we will be here for a very long time.

While we are talking about meanderings around local government and councils, I might take this opportunity to report on some meetings I had in the seats of Richmond, Page and Cowper in northern New South Wales, all of which are held at the moment by the National Party. I had meetings there with a number of councils, as I always do. At this point I must say I have not yet attended a meeting of a council where the GST has not been raised. I do not simply attend only Labor Party councils. I am eclectic; I view the sector as one. I do not use question time to persecute individual councils based on their political proclivities as this minister does. In fact, the opposition, throughout the course of a number of local government elections in Victoria, in New South Wales and in Queensland, did not once seek to misuse question time to push a political barrow, and nor will we. I will go through the questions those councils raised at those meetings about the GST. The councils in those three seats—and let me repeat them in case people missed them: Richmond, Page and Cowper—all raised varying concerns with the GST. Some were in relation to the implementation costs, some were in relation to the potential for rates to go up, some were in relation to the potential for services to increase in price because of the GST imposition—which is a broken promise by this government that the sector would be GST free, might I say.

So that is the story. We are in order. The questions are in order. It is not up to you, Minister, to determine and tell the Senate what you will and will not do. The Senate has decided that these questions are in order. If you do not think they are, I suggest you seek advice from the Clerk of the Senate as to why they are not in order. But they are in order. I also direct you to Odgers—and I repeat the page, page 262, for you—which makes it very clear. Also, Chair, I can say that a previous chair, Senator Watson—not from my party—in fact ruled that those questions were in order. Senator Bartlett ruled similarly when he was in the chair. I have heard no demurral from you, Chair, but it is so clear that I will not seek a ruling.

So here we have a series of questions that are extremely vital to local government. This minister regards them—and he used some fairly basic alliteration—as petty political point scoring. They are not. The impact of the GST on local government is not petty political point scoring. It is not petty, political point scoring to local government and it certainly is not to the communities that local government serve. The impact of the GST on local government is of extreme importance to them, particularly where you have a situation whereby Mr Costello and this minister have said that, as a result of the GST, rates will go down or services will go up. The minister has made that contention but he has not put forward one single piece of evidence to show that this is in fact the case. The minister alleges that at every single council meeting that he has been to the issue of the GST has not been raised once. I find that extraordinary and that is obviously something we will be pointing out to local government. I know for a fact that is not true but if you, Minister, seek to mislead the Senate in this way that is fine.

I will restate the questions—and they will be restated and restated. If you wish to re-hash the answers you gave to me at esti-mates, that is fine: you can do that. You can stand up in this chamber and give me the same answers that you gave me in estimates. I might point out, though, in terms of the first of the five questions—will the government undertake an analysis of the impact of the GST on local government?—you know the answer to that one so you should just get up here and say it, unless you have changed your mind. I understand that the government is under significant pressure here from people living in caravan parks and so on. There is a chance that the government may have altered its position on this with the calls from National Party members for exemptions for regional Australia in relation to the goods and services tax. In estimates you indicated that, firstly, you had not conducted any assessment as to the implications of the GST on regional Australia, nor did you intend to. You may be revisiting that. If the government's position remains the same in relation to the first question, just say so. The second one is this: will the government be monitoring or determining what impact the GST has on local government and on communities? That was not asked in estimates so you can try that one, Minister.

The third question we asked them—this is on the record now—was: what will you do about the $15 million you took out in terms of the freezing of the escalation factor? If that is not germane to this bill, I do not know what is. Will you be putting the money back? What will you be doing? That was not answered at estimates either. The only thing that was answered at estimates occurred in a quite interesting interchange between the minister and his officials, in which he disagreed with his officials as to the freezing of the escalation factor. Presumably, we now have some commonality between them.

I asked the minister whether he would seek advice as to whether the ACCC has jurisdiction over local government. The minister has raised this twice now in question time in relation to two Labor councils. The minister has said that he regards the allegations made by these councils to be so serious that the ACCC should investigate them. This question was not raised at estimates, it has not been raised before and I want the minister to undertake to seek advice as to whether the ACCC has jurisdiction over local government. Certainly, he is not beyond directing Professor Fels off to Labor councils.

I might illuminate the committee at this point to an interchange between me and Senator Alston when he was standing in for Senator Hill. I asked Senator Alston: `Are you going to send the ACCC off to investigate every council that alleges it may have to increase its rates or charges as a result of the GST?' He answered me: `Only the Labor ones.' Unfortunately, that was not picked up by Hansard, so I am here to say it now. I see Minister Macdonald laughing; he thinks it is funny that Senator Richard Alston said `Only the Labor ones.' If he thinks that is funny, he should get out of the portfolio. It is not funny. It is extremely serious. It is serious that the government chooses to use question time in this blatantly political manner when dealing with elections in a sector that has nothing to do with federal or state politics.

We did not get an answer to that question, so you are wrong there again. You did not answer the question of why there was an underspend in the LGIP, so you can have a go at it now. In this fairly lengthy contribution, we have traversed the issue of why these questions are in order. If the minister is quite clearly disagreeing with the Clerk of the Senate, Odgers and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all, that is something we will be seeking further advice on. If we need to, we will take the minister through the humiliating process we took him through at estimates again. I restate those five questions. They are not that difficult. If the minister could have a go at them, I could move on to my next five questions.