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Tuesday, 23 October 1984
Page: 2268

Senator MacGIBBON(10.48) — I apologise for taking a few minutes of the Senate's time tonight. I think this is only the second time in my life that I have spoken on the adjournment. It would not have been necessary to do so now if my democratic rights had not been abridged in such a terrible way by the Government today in denying us adequate time to debate issues. I guess there is some rough justice in the fact that the Minister responsible, the Minister for Industry and Commerce (Senator Button), is forced to sit here at this late hour and endure our presence.

Senator Button —I don't feel like that about you at all, Senator.

Senator MacGIBBON —Don't feel sad about that. Very well; instead of talking for two minutes I will talk for 20 minutes, if the Minister enjoys my company that much. I want to talk briefly about the recovery of sales tax and funding for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. The matter was raised with me by one of the large sales organisations of aircraft in Australia- an ethical and reputable company. It told me that it had had many complaints from purchasers of new light aircraft. I was shown a letter dated 5 October 1984 which related to the purchase of a new aircraft from the importers on 12 May 1982, roughly two and a half years earlier. Sales tax exclusion was claimed on the sale of that aircraft because it was purchased for business or industrial purposes. The letter, which was from the Australian Taxation Office, outlined the date of sale and restated section 119(A) of the Sales Tax (Exemptions and Classifications) Act. Following that the Australian Taxation Office suggested how that section should be interpreted. It then defined what in its view were the exempt uses for the aircraft and what were not. The final three paragraphs of the letter read:

If you now consider that exemption from sales tax correctly applies, please answer the enclosed questionnaire and return it to this office. (It may be noted that Section 29B of the Commonwealth Crimes Act provides penalties for persons who seek to obtain benefit by making untrue statements to the Commonwealth).

If, however, you now find that exemption has been incorrectly claimed, the matter may be adjusted by forwarding the amount of $10,422 together with the enclosed remittance form duly completed.

The information to support exemption for your aircraft, or your remittance for the sales tax involved, should be furnished to this office within 14 days of the date of this letter. Any further information you may require on this matter, can be obtained by contacting . . .

Two points arise out of that letter. The first is just a simple matter of courtesy. The letter is, to put it mildly, rather rude in the way in which it makes its request. Taxpayers are very much customers of the Australian Taxation Office, although it is probable that public servants do not think that way. Taxpayers are entitled to courtesy and civility in their dealings with the Taxation Office. Courtesy, after all, costs nothing and there is no reason at all why the Public Service cannot be as courteous as someone in private industry .

The second point deals with the legality of what the Australian Taxation Office is doing. This matter has arisen two and a half years after the sale of the aircraft and I am advised by the company that some of these actions have been made retrospective for a period of three years. It is arguable that the Australian Taxation Office does not have legislative backing to seek sales tax from persons other than registered sales tax payers; that is, companies which hold a sales tax number and lodge monthly sales tax returns. Furthermore, it can be argued that if it is proved that a false exemption certificate was provided, the Australian Taxation Office does not have the statutory backing to recover the tax.

Without taking sides on this matter, there are clearly grounds for legal dispute and argument about who is right and who is wrong. The Taxation Office is saying one thing and the purchasers are saying another. I do not know who is right, but I am left with a suspicion that the Australian Taxation Office is exceeding its powers here. I do not like the way a threat relating to a section of the Crimes Act is in the letter. Clearly the intention is to intimidate the purchaser and make him conform to the belief that he is in the wrong. I do not believe that that is a proper way for the Taxation Office to conduct its business as an agent of the Government. If it has a case, I think the correct course for it to follow is to resort to proper legal proceedings rather than to use an authority which seems to be rather dubious.

The second matter I raise is the serious lack of funding for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. It is primarily a matter of the failure of the Minister for Science and Technology (Mr Barry Jones), who has talked up science and technology to a degree that we have never seen before from any Minister in any Government. He has really reached absurd levels in the expectations he has created with respect to the funding that he will devote to it. He has failed abjectly to honour those expectations that he has raised. I think the outcry from the CSIRO and other members of the scientific community throughout Australia after this Budget was brought down in August provoked a response from the Minister that is unique in politics.

Instead of taking the criticism that was due to him, the Minister abused the scientists for being poor politicians. That transference of failure from one person to another is quite extraordinary. As one who has associations with the scientific world, I would much rather have Australian scientists as scientists and not as politicians. They are pretty good scientists and that is a full time job.

In the 1984-85 Budget we have a cut of 3.2 per cent in real terms in the salaries and operating funds of the CSIRO. I am concerned about the effect that that cut is having on Australia's rural industries, particularly those in Queensland. In Queensland we only have 8.4 per cent of the CSIRO's staff and on a raw population basis we should have at least 16 per cent of that staff. If we look at the figures in terms of the economic benefits that come to Australia from the exports of primary industries, we should have considerably more than 16 per cent of the staff devoted to us.

One of the most important divisions in Queensland is the Division of Tropical Crops and Pastures. Its work is very relevant not just to Queensland but the whole of the northern half of Australia. The beef industry has benefited enormously from the pasture improvements from this Division, but in the last 10 years its operating expenses have been reduced by 45 per cent and its staff has been reduced by 25 per cent. The present situation is that there is little or no room at all for any new research to be initiated into pastoral matters in the north of Australia.

This Division does have a proven history of achievement. Since its establishment, it has released 29 grasses and legumes for northern Australian conditions. It has done continuing research on the management of seed harvesting , disease and insect problems and fertiliser requirements for these new pasture species. It is developing detoxification for the bacteria for animals grazing on leuvcaena which in time will provide big benefits for the dry pastoral areas in northern Australia. Much more needs to be done in respect of pasture development . We need new grasses and new pasture management techniques because we are now facing very real problems of overgrazing in many of the northern Australian pasture areas. Because of the cost squeeze on rural production it is becoming more and more imperative if we are to stay in business to improve the efficiency of production.

As the Government is well aware, the sugar industry is very depressed at present and it needs help in a whole variety of ways. The CSIRO simply does not have the funds to help it. There are the problems of northern poor root growth, the yellowing of sugar from the production of amino acids as a consequence of nitrogenous fertilisers, the number of ratoons obtained from cane stock which is a matter of applied plant physiology. These are all pressing problems on which CSIRO could help and to which it could profitably turn its attention if it had the resources. But this year the Budget of the Division of Tropical Crops and Pastures is being reduced by 5 per cent.

I accept that the rundown is not purely the consequence of this year's Budget. The previous Government must accept some blame because of the reduction of 45 per cent that I talked about earlier. The point is that we have just about reached the end of the line. We are in a critical situation and something needs to be done. While I am attributing blame, I must say something about the objectives and management goals of the CSIRO because clearly in the last 10 years it has moved away from a primary concern with agricultural pursuits and into other, no doubt rewarding, fields. But as a consequence, some of its objectives in primary production research have fallen by the wayside.

I finish on the note that we have almost reached the end of the line with respect to northern Australia tropical crops and pasture research. This is a very valuable avenue of research for Australia and, as is popularly said, money spent here comes back tenfold to the Australian community. I bring this matter to the Minister's notice so that he can raise it with his colleagues in the hope that some remedial action can be taken in the near future.