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Thursday, 12 March 1998
Page: 1106

Mr GRIFFIN (10:02 AM) —by leave—I note the presence in the chamber of the previous chair of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, the member for Fairfax (Mr Somlyay), as well as the current chair, the member for La Trobe (Mr Charles). The report we are considering today relates to the tax law improvement project process of the rewriting of the tax act, as has been mentioned by previous speakers. I will focus on a couple of issues on this occasion, given the shortage of time. The Tax Law Improvement Bill (No. 2) 1997 is the third bill that we have had to consider as part of this rewrite. It is a massive job—a job that is well overdue. It is a job which has been done, under the circumstances, in a pretty effective fashion.

I will focus on a couple of points that have been mentioned by previous speakers. One is the question of small `p' policy issues which have come up continually during this rewrite. I congratulate the Assistant Treasurer (Senator Kemp) on finally having a process to consider these issues in-house. I say `finally', so I am damning him with faint praise. The fact is that this was a recommendation that came out of a report, I think some 18 months ago, from the JCPAA. It has taken the government that long to respond to it. Now that it has responded, I congratulate it. I hope the new process works. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, though. It will take some time before we can establish whether the new process will be effective. It is a step in the right direction towards at least trying to consider some of these issues and to resolve them. There is no doubt that there is a range of things which could be addressed in the committee structure which has been proposed if the government embraces it.

The other issue which has been referred to by previous speakers is the time available to review this bill. I will make some general comments here which relate to the operation of the committee system under this government. Congratulations go to the government—again, I suppose I am damning them with faint praise—for the number of pieces of legislation which have been referred to the JCPAA, which is a good thing in terms of the scrutiny of government and the consideration of legislation. I congratulate them on that front. However, one of the problems this committee faces in particular—I think other committees also share this difficulty—is having to do more reports and consider more legislation with fewer resources or unreasonable time lines for the proper consideration of bills.

Having a scrutiny system through parliamentary committees is a very important part of ensuring that bills are considered properly and that parliament is involved in that process. But not giving committees sufficient time or resources to do this is, in itself, an abrogation of the responsibilities that government and parliament have to ensure that job is done properly. Although I think that the secretariat and members of this committee in particular have done a sterling job under the circumstances, the fact is, on matters such as this, we are not being given sufficient time to properly consider bills. This particular bill is the third in the process of the continual review and rewrite of the original tax act. After complaints were made by the committee on previous occasions and a request was made to government that more time be given, what happened? We were given more time—two more weeks for what is clearly the most complicated component of that tax rewrite. As is noted by the report and by the recommendations, major components of what relates to this bill, to this section of the rewrite, are not available for consideration. In effect, we have been forced to consider an element of what is the whole in this issue—if you like, several pieces of the jigsaw—and to make conclusions as to whether that is a good or a bad thing.

We have done that to the best of our abilities. But have we done it as well as we should have? No. Have we been given enough time to do it? No. Have we had enough resources to do it? No. Have the private sector and those who are interested in this particular issue in the community had enough time to consider these matters? No. Do we, therefore, have the best under the circumstances? My worry is that we do not. But time will tell.

Hopefully we will not face this situation again, because there will be more components of the rewrite coming through and they will be considered by this committee. On those occasions, I hope to not be standing here once again—I am now, I think, for the third time—complaining about the time that we have available. However, I have doubts about that. I suspect that I will be, on a continuing basis.

If a government prides itself on saying that it values the work of parliament, that it sees it as a more important role than what it maintains others have in the past, I think there has to be more to that than the rhetoric. There has to be some action, and I do not see the action that is required. Having said that, I commend the report to the House as I think a reasonable examination of what was available to be examined, but I am sure I will be standing here again in the future on the same issue.