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Wednesday, 12 October 1983
Page: 1648


Mr HOWARD(3.33) —I second the motion. This motion is not about whether Coomel Pty Ltd should have owned shares in Metro Industries Ltd. It is not at the moment about the conduct of the Minister for Finance (Mr Dawkins) or any member of his family so far as the ownership of shares is concerned or, indeed, about the events that led to the disposal by Metro Industries in 1976 of its subsidiary, Treamog Pty Ltd. This motion is totally and exclusively about the attitudes and conduct of the Minister so far as the whole range of tax avoidance matters is concerned. This motion would not have been necessary if a different attitude had been adopted by the Minister either during Question Time yesterday or in this chamber last night. To put it bluntly, the Minister was caught out yesterday. He was caught out red-handed. Had he had any decency, had he had any real courage and had he not skulked under the cover of the numbers of a government he would have said in this Parliament last night: 'Look, I was caught out. I admit that there was a connection with my family company. I am sorry about that. I know that I have adopted a double standard but you know as well as I do that my family did not do anything wrong in a strict moral sense and that I should not really be condemned for that arrangement'. Had he adopted that attitude, had he come clean, in this Parliament last night, I think he would have won a bit of credit, even from people on this side of the House. But the Minister for Finance found it absolutely beyond his capacity to do that.

In taxation matters the Minister for Finance has almost written a new expression into the Australian code of language so far as tax avoidance matters are concerned. We all remember the debates last year; we all remember the smears . We were told that no matter what the connection was, no matter how tenuous, nominal or innocent, if one was connected in any way one was a crook, a robber and a cheat. That was the attitude taken last year by the Minister for Finance. Is it any wonder that people on this side of the House and people outside the House will take the Minister at his word? They will say: 'You are connected with a bottom of the harbour scheme. Does not that, according to your definition, make you a crook, a robber and a cheat?' Of course it does, and until the Minister has repudiated that definition, until he has expunged that criticism of honest and decent people, we on this side of the House, and people outside it, are entitled to take the Minister at his word. That is precisely what we have done. We gave the Minister an opportunity yesterday in Question Time and in Parliament last night, when he admitted the accuracy of the question that I had asked him, to recant on what he had said and to repudiate the scurrilous traducing of the reputation of Mr John Reid that he had engaged in with the then Leader of the Opposition, to his great discredit, during stages of the tax avoidance debate last year. But he passed all of those opportunities up. He continued his truculence and his venom. He even failed to take the hint from his own Prime Minister (Mr Hawke).

I say this for the Prime Minister: Although he associated himself in a formal way with what the Minister for Finance had done, he was trying to persuade the House during Question Time today that the Minister for Finance had apologised to Mr Reid. If the Minister for Finance has apologised to Mr Reid, why does he not say so? He does not need the Prime Minister to say it on his behalf. This just illustrates the problem. He does not have the intestinal fortitude to do that. When he has been caught out, when he has been judged by his own standards, and when his smear tactics have come home to haunt him, he cannot do the manly thing and admit that, under the cover of parliamentary privilege, he unfairly attacked Mr Reid and many other people.

Let us go back to the events of yesterday at Question Time. That really is fundamental to this motion. It is on the behaviour of the Minister at Question Time that this motion should be judged by this House. It is phrased in very deliberate terms. We accuse the Minister for Finance of deliberately misleading this House. Let us examine what the Minister for Finance said yesterday. Let us examine his answer very carefully. When it is examined carefully, our case builds into a very strong one. The Minister was asked a very simple question by the honourable member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey) who, through his great courage and to his credit, has been responsible for many of these matters being raised in this Parliament. I think that fact ought to be acknowledged. The Minister was asked a very simple question by the honourable member for O'Connor. He asked:

Can the Minister for Finance assure the House that he has not been involved in any way with bottom of the harbour tax avoidance transactions?

In the course of his usual smearing sort of answer, the Minister said: ' Absolutely no'. There was no equivocation about it. He did not say: 'I do not believe so. I will go away and find out.' Any prudent person, recognising some limits to his own genius, might do that and any sensible Minister ought to do that if he has a difficult matter to handle. But, no, the Minister for Finance was beyond the trammels of mere mortals when it came to matters like that. Instead of saying 'I will take the question on notice and go away and look at it ', he said 'Absolutely no', and proceeded to heap scorn on the Opposition for asking the question.

That was the end of the matter until I asked the honourable gentleman a question about the ownership of Coomel Pty Ltd and Metro Industries Ltd. That is where the interesting part of the honourable gentleman's response comes in. He was obviously ready for that question. He had obviously gone into a lot of research on this subject. He was full bottle on Metro; there is no doubt about that. The Minister has been full bottle on Metro Industries for a long time. He was able to tell us that there were six Metro subsidiaries and that the shareholders were currently receiving assessments. He was able to say that on the last count there were 1,800 shareholders. In other words, he was very well informed on all other aspects of Metro Industries; yet he did not know whether his family company was a shareholder.

Let us examine that point. The Minister is inviting us to believe that yesterday afternoon when he said 'absolutely no' to the honourable member for O' Connor he knew how many subsidiaries had been owned by Metro, he knew how many shareholders had received assessments on the latest count and that the assessments were going out but yet, strangely, he did not know that his own family company was one of those shareholders. I put it to the House that one of the reasons why the Minister for Finance knew that there were 1,800 shareholders on the last count, one of the reasons why he knew that assessments were already going out, and one of the reasons why he knew so much about Metro Industries-why he was full bottle on Metro Industries-is that his family company, to his knowledge, owned shares in Metro Industries. He knew that yesterday when he gave that answer.

The very detail in the answer that he gave to me yesterday, the fact that he had that detail prepared, the fact that he came into this House with that detail , indicates to me a guilty state of mind. That is the reason why we do not say there was an accidental misleading of the House or that there was an innocent misleading of the House; that is why we say there was a deliberate misleading of the House. That was not enough for the honourable member for Fremantle, the Minister for Finance. Having done that and having given us chapter and verse on Metro Industries-everything about the matter that probably triggered his original inquiry-and after having heaped vilification and scorn on members of the Liberal Party and members of the Opposition, the Minister for Finance proceeded along his truculent way. He demonstrated once again the double standards that he adopted when he was in opposition. After all it is the Minister for Finance, the present Treasurer (Mr Keating) and the then Leader for the Opposition-and there were other people on this side of the House-who introduced all these pejorative terms. To their credit there were some in the then Opposition on that occasion who hung their heads in shame at some of the descriptions that were used. I reckon some of them are hanging their heads in shame at the fact that they belong to the same Government as the present Minister for Finance. I hope they have the intestinal fortitude to tell him and his leader that his conduct is not acceptable to the Australian Labor Party Government in this country at present. This person, in the language he used, the attitude he took, the double standards he displayed, and the misleading of the House that he demonstrated over the last 24 hours, has destroyed any confidence on this side of the House and, I believe, so far as his own side of the House is concerned.

Let us remember that these pejorative terms were introduced by the Minister himself. The Minister himself established the absolute standard. All of us know that absolute standards are very dangerous things. And they are very dangerous things for one reason-that is, it is very hard for any of us to live up to them. That has been the great error of the Minister for Finance. He went into the unchartered, dangerous waters of establishing an absolute standard. He ought to know-he is very good at Biblical quotations, as we know from previous exchanges in the House-that when one gets into that area absolute standards are very dangerous. I would not be game to start using those types of absolute standards, and any rational person in this Parliament would not be game either. That did not deter the honourable member for Fremantle. The bully boy from the West could burst through those constraints on mere mortals. So, he decided to introduce this absolute standard into the tax avoidance debate.

That absolute standard consisted of one thing and one thing alone-that is, if one is connected or linked with a bottom of the harbour tax transaction or with a company that had been involved in a bottom of the harbour tax transaction, irrespective of whether one had any benefit, irrespective of one's knowledge, motives or understanding of the transaction, one is automatically guilty to the hilt. One is absolutely caught, absolutely liable and absolutely likely to be condemned under the cover of parliamentary privilege as being a thief, a robber and a cheat. That is the absolute standard that the Minister for Finance dared to bring into the Parliament in September and October of last year. That is the absolute standard of his own making on which he is now being judged-and rightly being judged-by the Opposition and ought to be judged by this Parliament. It is because of that that the Minister for Finance stands condemned. It is because he introduced absolute standards into this tax avoidance debate, when he was asked a very simple question, he gave an absolute response and an absolute denial.

He has now had to admit that that absolute denial had to be turned on its head within a matter of six or seven hours. He had to come into this Parliament because we had flushed him out, because we put him on the spot and because we put the heat on to him, and admit that he was wrong. It is even worse than that because he was not even able to say: 'Look, Mr Speaker, I am terribly sorry for the following reasons: It was a purely innocent mistake on my part; I did not know; you could not really expect me to know; I am very uneducated in these matters; I do not know anything about all this complicated tax avoidance stuff- that is for other people; I was responsible for the Australian Taxation Office for four or five months, but do not expect that to mean anything; I did not understand any of this; please forgive me; I made an honest mistake; I should not have said it; I am sorry; I apologise to the House.' If the Minister had done that, he might have had a bit of respect and understanding from this side of the House. But, no, he did not even have the decency to admit last night in his speech that he had misled the House. He did not even have the decency to say : 'I am sorry that I misled the House'. It is as simple as that. He could not even bring himself to say: 'I am very sorry; I misled the House'. It shows the contempt in which he holds this parliamentary institution and it shows the contempt of those opposite in this parliamentary institution that they would continue to support a Minister for Finance who adopts that sort of truculent attitude.

When we look below the surface, we see that the situation is really worse than that. He knew darn well when I asked him that question yesterday that what I asked was correct. He knew it was correct. The proof that he knew it was correct is to be found in the detail to the answer he gave about Metro Industries when I asked that question. Why else would he inquire about the number of shareholders? Why else would he want to know that the assessments were going out? Why else would he know that there were six or seven subsidiaries of Metro Industries? He did that because he knew his own family company was involved. We condemn his deliberate misleading of the House. We condemn his double standards. We remind him that it was he who established an absolute standard and it is he who should perish according to that standard.