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Friday, 28 November 1986
Page: 3974

Mr HOWARD (Leader of the Opposition)(2.46) —I move:

That this House censures the Prime Minister for his failure to maintain proper standards of conduct and responsibility within his Government and calls on the Prime Minister to apply the same standards of tax compliance against his Treasurer as he expects of all other taxpayers.

In moving this motion of censure, which is the most serious form of parliamentary attack that can be made on a government, I commence my remarks to the House by saying that if there were any doubt in anybody's mind that this motion of censure was necessary it was totally removed when the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) in that extraordinary answer that he gave a few moments ago said that a failure to lodge an income tax return was of no particular consequence and it was not a matter of serious significance. If ever there was an invitation from the highest political authority in this country to think that disrespect and contempt for the Australian taxation system is now the order of the day under the Hawke Government it came out of the mouth of the Prime Minister. It came out of the mouth of a man who, in company with his Treasurer (Mr Keating), has strutted this country. He has heaped abuse on any man or woman who has dared to criticise his so-called taxation reforms. He and the Treasurer have elevated to a veritable art form the art of smearing, slandering and traducing the reputation, normally under parliamentary privilege, of any citizen who presumes to disagree with them on tax or any other issue.

This motion above everything else is about the standards of the Government. This motion is about the ministerial standards required by the Prime Minister of the Ministers in his Government. This motion is also about the deplorable and reprehensible double standards of the Treasurer, because if ever a man in public office has earned himself the reputation of having double standards it is the Treasurer. He thinks that he can run the Australian Taxation Office the way he runs the right wing of the New South Wales Australian Labor Party-anything goes as long as you have the numbers. A lot of people in this country and in electorates represented by the Labor Party are fast running out of tolerance with the man who has earned himself the title of the most arrogant Treasurer, the most arrogant Minister, that this country has ever seen. Ladies and gentlemen, the fundamental failure--

Mr Hawke —What is this `ladies and gentlemen'?

Mr HOWARD —There are ladies and gentlemen in this House but the Prime Minister is not one of them. The fundamental fact about this whole issue is the supreme arrogance of a man who has sworn to administer the taxation laws of this country but who regards it as so unimportant to comply with those very laws that for 15 long months he failed to lodge a taxation return. Then he had the unbelievable gall to come into this Parliament, as he did last night-and the Prime Minister has the unbelievable gall to support him-and say: `Oh, I am very sorry, it was an oversight'. He is asking the Australian public to accept that he had an oversight that lasted for 15 months. For 15 months he kept having an oversight about the failure to lodge his return.

The reality is that the present Treasurer of this country believes that he is above the ordinary laws of this country. That is why we say he ought to be sacked. The Prime Minister ought to dismiss him because he regards himself as being above the ordinary laws of this country. I can say to him, and I can say it on behalf of people all around the country, whether they vote Labor or Liberal-honourable members should have heard the talk-back radio programs of Sydney, Melbourne and all around the country this morning-that there is absolute fury that the highest taxing, most abusive, most arrogant, most self-righteous Treasurer that this country has ever seen should have the unbelievable contempt for the people who elected him to imagine that he could thumb his nose at the very standards he has rammed down the throats of the Australian community. That is the crime in political terms of this man, this man who has moralised and sermonised and hectored his way around the Australian community over the last 3 1/2 years, the man who has never shrunk from using parliamentary privilege to destroy the reputations of Australian citizens, the man who has elevated abuse, in slandering, to an art form. That is the political crime of the Treasurer.

The political crime of the Prime Minister-he is the man who is ultimately accountable for the actions of his Government, the man who sets the standards, or fails to set the standards, for his Government-is that he has observed the worst standards of ministerial propriety of any Prime Minister this country has seen. It can be said that if what has happened to the Minister for Trade (Mr Dawkins), the Special Minister of State (Mr Young)--

Mr Young —A very good Minister.

Mr HOWARD —and the Treasurer had happened under Menzies or Fraser they would have all been sacked. In respect of Labor Prime Ministers, if it had happened under Chifley or Whitlam they also would have been sacked. Apparently under this Prime Minister it is the old adage: `Anything goes as long as you think you have the hide to bluff your way through it'. I have news for the Prime Minister and the Treasurer: The Australian community will not tolerate double standards.

There is one great strand that runs through the Australian character, and that is a sense of equality and of egalitarianism. We have been preached and moralised to by the Prime Minister about fairness in the taxation system. We have all been lectured and we have all been exhorted to make the Australian taxation system fairer. I ask you, Madam Speaker: What is fair about a taxation system that requires of ordinary people that they lodge their taxation returns by 31 August 1985 but allows the Treasurer to go 10 months without getting a final notice and without getting a summons? All he gets after 10 months is a cosy call from the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation, and after 15 months he gets a cosy call from the Commissioner of Taxation. Why did he get it from the Commissioner of Taxation? He got it because the dogs were barking around this building that it was all about to come out.

Are we invited to believe that quite coincidentally at the beginning of this week the Commissioner of Taxation rang up and said: `Paul, it is Trevor here. You had better get that return in. It really has been overdue a bit too long and you can't really ask us to cop that any longer. You know you are occasionally like everybody else'. What is the Treasurer's miserable defence? He said: `I was too busy to put it in'. I say to the Treasurer that there are thousands of small businessmen around Australia at present who are too busy to fill in the Treasurer's lousy fringe benefits tax forms. If over the next few months there is massive non-compliance-and it is not something I encourage-the person who will be blamed for it will not be Bob Ansett but Paul Keating. If ever a person has failed that fundamental test that was put by the Special Minister of State, who said `Nothing is more important than the way in which these people who are called Ministers behave themselves and set an example to other people in Australia', it is this man.

What has this man-a man who has sworn to administer the taxation laws of Australia and to administer fairness and justice in those laws, who has ranted and raved at all of us about fairness and justice-done to the spirit of voluntary compliance with the taxation laws of this country? We all know that a tax system cannot be run with any hope of achieving integrity unless there is a spirit of voluntary compliance. All tax administrators know that if we rely totally and exclusively on intimidation and penalties we can never have enough bureaucrats to make that work. We need respect, and we need voluntary compliance.

Today, in this Parliament, that respect and that voluntary compliance have been dealt a body blow by the Prime Minister because he got up at Question Time and gave a pathetic excuse, an excuse that will be thrown back at him every day on the campaign trail between now and the next election when he raises the issue of tax avoidance. I am more than ever delighted that the Prime Minister wants to campaign for the next election on the issue of taxation. I could not be more delighted because I will remind him on every day of that campaign trail that on 28 November he announced to the Australian people that it was no longer a matter of great significance if people failed to lodge their taxation returns. So pathetic, so bumbling was his defence of the Treasurer that he made that quite extraordinary statement. By that statement he has demonstrated a contempt for the observance of the laws of this country that he, above everybody else, is sworn to uphold. That is why I say to the House that the standards of ministerial propriety under this Government are deplorable and pathetically low.

I heard as I talked earlier an interjection from the Special Minister of State. We all know where he stands on questions of ministerial propriety. We are very high minded when in opposition but when we get into government we can not only mess up Customs declarations but also run off at the mouth and endanger national security in a car park after we have had a long lunch. So the Special Minister of State is no authority on ministerial behaviour. Despite the finding of a royal commission, despite the clearest possible finding of Mr Justice Hope that the Special Minister of State behaved in a way that endangered national security, the Prime Minister turned his back on his responsibilities and said to the rest of Australia: `I don't care what my Ministers do. I'm not going to impose any kind of discipline'. All I can say is that previous Labor Prime Ministers from Curtin to Whitlam would have been absolutely ashamed of his failure to impose decent standards.

The last 24 hours have been quite extraordinary. We are invited by the Prime Minister to believe that we know all about this because of this spontaneous honesty of the Treasurer. The Prime Minister said that the Treasurer said to him in a quite straightforward manner: `Look, I haven't filed my return, but I'm going to put it in tomorrow'. The Prime Minister said: `Good'. Is it good that he is finally going to file it, or is it good that he had not filed it over the last 15 months? I ask the Prime Minister and the House, as the Australian people will ask the Prime Minister and the Treasurer: If the Treasurer was so spontaneously honest, so straightforward, so frank and so candid, why did he not tell the Prime Minister a month ago that he had not filed his tax return? Why did he not tell him two months ago? Why did he not tell him six months ago? Why did he not tell him 12 months ago? The reality is that, if the dogs had not started to bark around this building, that 1985 tax return would still be outstanding in 12 months. For the Treasurer or the Prime Minister to try to pretend to anybody that this is an act of spontaneous confession, being good for the soul, on the part of the Treasurer is to insult the intelligence and the common sense of the Australian public.

This failure by the Treasurer, this offence under the Income Tax Assessment Act, this contempt for the administration of the laws that he is sworn to administer, this monumental double standard, this thumbing of the nose at the high standards that a Minister in his position ought to establish is not, of course, the first disgrace of the Treasurer. It is not the first time he has exhibited monumental double standards. Remember the infamous travel allowance? One of the explanations why the Treasurer did not get the final notice may be that it was posted to his principal place of residence in Sydney. Maybe that is why he did not get the final notice. Well, Paul, why don't you go up there and clear the letter-box? You might find the final notice, and you might find a bluey from the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation there as well.

As my colleague the honourable member for Forde (Dr Watson) reminded the House, 3,800 people failed to lodge their tax returns for 1985-86. I can assure the Treasurer and the Parliament that any of those 3,800 people who got a final notice or a summons or have been harassed or enjoined by the Australian Taxation Office to file their returns will be hammering on his door and the doors of his colleagues demanding to know why he has had special treatment. They will be knocking loudest on the doors of all his mates who are sitting in those marginal seats. His mate Punch in Barton will have quite a number banging on his door in Hurstville. He will want to know why the darling of the New South Wales Right, the man who is supposed to be the great saviour of the right wing of the Labor Party in New South Wales, has not only exhibited such monumental political double standards but also displayed such monumental arrogance.

I thought the Labor Party was born and dedicated to serve the aspirations of average Australians. I thought it was interested in fairness. I thought it had contempt for people who abused the privilege of office. I cannot think of something which is more characteristic of somebody who is abusing the privilege of office than somebody who thinks that he can get away with not filing a tax return for 15 months. I go back to that, Madam Speaker. It was not just a momentary oversight. If he had been a couple of days late in 1985, he could explain that as an oversight. For 15 months he was in such a state of arrogance and indifference to the idea that the ordinary laws of this country could apply to him that he really did not think it was important enough for him to file his return.

What that arrogance has done to his capacity to administer his job and what that arrogance has done to his credibility in the eyes of the Australian community is absolutely monumental. He has no hope ever again of persuading the ordinary taxpayer of this country that he is running a fair system. Every time he gets up in this Parliament and every time he stands on a platform around Australia and says that he has brought decency back into the taxation system, people will remember this. Every time he talks about a rort and every time he talks about the ramping of the system, they will remember the great Keating double standard. They will remember `one law for the rest of you mugs out there and another law for me'. That is the measure. In good old New South Wales right wing Labor tradition he will say: `We have the numbers. We have the white cars', complete with New South Wales number plates and tinted glass in his case. I reckon he ought to get a double thickness of that tinted glass after this because he will be so much more unpopular as a consequence of this.

The real tragedy is the damage that has been done to the respect that ordinary Australians have for the taxation laws of this country. That damage has been done by the Treasurer's arrogance, double standard and insensitive capacity to smear and hurl innuendo at the reputations of decent, honest Australians. Above everything else, the man who today has even king hit the Treasurer in arrogance and double standards is the Prime Minister because out of his arrogant mouth came those words that will haunt him from now until the election-the greatest invitation to a burgeoning of the cash economy that has ever been uttered in Australia-that failure to file an income tax return is not an act of great significance. That is what he said. That is what the Prime Minister said. On behalf of the outraged taxpayers of Australia, we say that the Treasurer ought to go and that the Prime Minister ought to have the guts to sack him and to impose some decent standards on the Australian Ministry.

Madam SPEAKER —Is the motion seconded?

Mr Carlton —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak, Madam Speaker.

Madam SPEAKER —Order! Before the Prime Minister speaks, I remind honourable members that the Leader of the Opposition was heard in silence, so I expect the same right to be extended to the Prime Minister.