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Wednesday, 10 October 1984
Page: 1592

Senator WATSON —by leave-This inquiry was based on concerns expressed in the Auditor-General's report as a result of an efficiency audit carried out by the Auditor-General. The audit's main aim was to formulate suggestions for improvement in a number of areas. The role of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts was to evaluate the suggestions put forward by the audit. The report takes very much the form of an information-type paper, although it comes down with a number of very firm recommendations and suggestions. Historically, the introduction of excise in many countries was justified initially on moral grounds-to discourage the use of goods considered to be socially undesirable, which included spirits, beer and tobacco. In Australia excise is levied on very few commodities; for example, beer, tobacco, spirits, petroleum products and crude oil. Nevertheless, it is a very important source of revenue for the Federal Government, which has exclusive powers over commodity taxation by virtue of section 90 of the Constitution.

When the Federation came into being the respective colonies saw that it was undesirable for each of them to proceed to collect its own excise, as there would then be different rates in the different colonies. Hence the Commonwealth has exclusive powers in relation to the collection of excise, which is very desirable.

In summary, as a result of the subject matter of the statement which Senator Georges has incorporated in Hansard, the Committee recommended that the Department of Industry and Commerce take action to improve specific controls over the excisable commodities considered by the inquiry and to improve the general management strategy. I think it was unfortunate that during the inquiry the Committee received disturbing information regarding an illicit spirit distilling operation and an evasion of duty. I commend the report, which is very detailed, to the Senate.

As this will be one of the last reports, if not the last, of the Public Accounts Committee to be presented to the Senate before it rises, I wish the Senate to take note of the fact that the size of the Committee was substantially increased during this term of Parliament. As a result, the Chairman's duties became very much more onerous and more difficult and a wider range of issues was discussed. It was necessary for the Committee to divide into a number of sub- committees and this worked very well. I therefore pay tribute to the Chairman, Senator Georges, who found it necessary to devote a considerable amount of time to the operations of the Committee. We have to recognise that when a person takes on the position of Chairman of what is perhaps the most important committee of the Parliament-this fact is recognised by the Parliament's allocation of staff to this Committee-a lot of his personal time, as well as his normal parliamentary time, is involved.

I think we have to acknowledge that one of the important roles of the parliamentary process is fulfilled by the committee system. In committees we lose some of the cut and thrust, some of the nastiness that we often see in this chamber, where a lot of point scoring takes place. In committees, and certainly on the Public Accounts Committee, there is a determination to improve the management systems. We do not seek to criticise officers overtly, to stand them up in public; we seek to improve the system, to improve accountability and to make sure that the system works very much more effectively and, consequently, save the taxpayers money.

I pay tribute to the staff of the Public Accounts Committee, many of whom come on a secondment basis for six months. It provides valuable training to a number of members of the Public Service, especially those in cadet management and improvement areas. I believe they receive valuable training as a result of their time on the Committee. I also pay tribute to the work of Michael Talberg. Michael has been with the Committee over a number of years. I do not think one would find a harder working public servant than Michael Talberg. It is a difficult job because he has to get the information out of the departments. He has to work very closely with the Auditor-General. In fact, it has been stated that we are almost an arm of the Auditor-General. He reports independently to the Parliament, not to the Executive, and that is the same role as our Public Accounts Committee has. I thank the Chairman and members of the Committee, my colleagues from this chamber and my colleagues from the other chamber because it is a joint committee and I believe it plays a most useful role in the parliamentary process.