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Monday, 1 December 1986
Page: 3066

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(4.35) —Pursuant to contingent notice, I move:

That so much of the Sessional Order relating to the consideration of Government Papers be suspended as would prevent the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate moving a motion relating to the order in which the papers are called on by the President.

I move that motion because the Government has brought before the Senate today a list of 42 papers. That very long list is in part explained by the fact that on at least one day last week and possibly more no papers were tabled. I can understand the Government's tactic in this matter, which is to try to ensure that more time is spent on Government Business and, therefore, not to introduce any papers at all, but it now leaves us with a situation where the Senate is given half an hour to consider 42 papers. The papers are quite varied and a number of them are of importance. For example, the defence service homes annual report is listed first. I remind the Senate that we had quite an extensive debate on defence service homes during the Budget. What worries the Opposition is that the twentieth paper listed is the 1985-86 annual report of the Commissioner of Taxation. We believe that, in the current circumstances, it is important that there be an opportunity to debate that report. It is my proposition, therefore, that, on the carrying of my motion, we would move to bring on Paper No. 20.

I sought the support of the Australian Democrats with respect to this proposition but it was indicated that that would not be forthcoming; rather they would prefer that we brought on papers every day so that we could work our way through this list. I understand the approach they are putting forward but I do not believe that it is practical at this stage of the session for us to be foisting that upon the Government and I therefore wish to put arguments as to why the Senate should be considering the annual report of the Commissioner of Taxation rather than these other matters, important as they might be.

I do not think there is any doubt that the issue with the highest profile at the moment and which is of central concern to the Australian people is that which surrounds the Australian taxation system. It goes beyond the issue of today, which has had a great deal of media attention and attention in Question Time today, the taxation affairs of the Treasurer, Mr Keating. Of course, it is very serious that the Treasurer has been found not to be upholding the very laws which he is committed to administering. It goes way beyond that issue, although the Opposition's concern is increased by the fact that the Government has failed today to answer quite straightforward questions which were put to it about the operation of the tax system. For example, Senator Messner sought advice as to how people who failed to lodge tax returns are normally treated by the Taxation Office. He asked a very simple question on the generality of cases: How does the Taxation Commissioner treat Australians who lodge their own tax returns if they fail to lodge a tax return? Do they--

Senator Gareth Evans —I raise a point of order. I think Senator Chaney is perfectly entitled to debate the order and sequence in which papers come before us but he is stretching a long bow to get as far into the substance of one of those topic areas as he now is.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! I have been listening to Senator Chaney. He is in order so far. He is entitled to give an example of the importance of changing the order of consideration of papers.

Senator CHANEY —Thank you, Mr Deputy President. So that Senator Gareth Evans does not get unduly agitated, perhaps I should tell him the sort of line I intended to advance in this argument so that he does know where we are going. All I wish to do is to highlight the fact that there are some unanswered questions. I merely wish to deal with that question which the Government refused to answer in Question Time today. I then intend to turn to the review of five of the Auditor-General's efficiency audit reports which show that there is a situation of gross maladministration in the Australian Taxation Office and I wish to refer to the politicisation of the Taxation Office by the present Tax Commissioner as well. These are points which I think are all very relevant to whether we should be debating the annual report of the Commissioner of Taxation. In that context I direct the attention of the Senate to the fact that in the annual report of the Commissioner of Taxation, which we are seeking to debate, table 68 shows that 37,000 Australians were prosecuted--

Senator Gareth Evans —I rise on a point of order, Mr Deputy President. I think Senator Chaney is trespassing well beyond the bounds of tolerance as it bears upon the particular procedural motion he has moved.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! There is no point of order at the moment.

Senator CHANEY —I am quite happy to be interrupted every second sentence by Senator Evans and I assure him that it will not deter me from pursuing the reasons why the Opposition believes that this is a priority matter for debate. I was making the point that the report we are seeking to debate shows that more than 37,000 Australians were prosecuted during the last financial year for failure to lodge an income tax return. The questions we have put forward about the normal procedures followed by the Tax Commissioner, with respect to when he seeks the lodging of returns and when he mounts prosecutions, have not been answered by the Government. That is one reason for our very considerable concern.

The major reason for our concern, and the major reason we wish to give priority to debating the report of the Commissioner of Taxation, is that a committee of this Parliament has indicated quite clearly that on a proper examination of the work of the Auditor-General, who has in five reports examined the workings of the Australian Taxation Office, there is a serious and deep problem with the Office under this Government's administration. That is particularly relevant now because this Government is about to spend upwards of another $1 billion of taxpayers' money to introduce a new identity card aimed at getting rid of some of the deficiencies which exist in the Tax Office but which could be cured using the existing laws and procedure. We have the objective evidence of the Auditor-General's report to show that that is so. It is therefore quite clear why the report of the Tax Commissioner is a far more important matter for us to be debating than the other 19 matters which the Government has sought to put before that report so that we will not get an opportunity to debate it during the current parliamentary session. We see that as being a matter of great concern.

I want to stress that, whilst there is a continual effort by the Government to suggest that any complaints and criticisms put forward by the Opposition are merely political arguments, the evidence that I am citing now is that the deficiencies in the Tax Office, which we believe are properly the subject of debate now, have been identified not by a partisan Opposition operation; they have been identified by the Auditor-General, who is a statutory officer, and by a committee of this Parliament which consists of representatives of both the Government and the Opposition. It is that committee, not just the Opposition, which is saying that there are serious shortcomings within certain Australian Taxation Office philosophies and operations. It is this parliamentary committee which is saying that significant losses to taxation revenue are being incurred and that unnecessary costs have been imposed upon the taxpayer. These are the sorts of concerns which we believe need to be aired today in the Senate, rather than the myriad of other things which the Government would seek to have us debate and which the Australian Democrats would prefer to debate. This report shows that the Tax Commissioner and his administration have failed to do the most obvious things about having information put on to computers; that the Australian Taxation Office has lost taxation revenue and that there is low staff morale as a result; and that the Office has suffered from poor management and direction of its data processing area. The report identifies the fact that the Tax Office has underspent its equipment allocation by $49m--

Senator Gareth Evans —I rise again on a point of order, Mr Deputy President. Senator Chaney is manifestly now debating in detail and in substance the particular matters that it is appropriate to raise pursuant to the substantive debate either on whether that particular report ought to get priority or on the paper itself. We are debating at the moment a motion simply that the procedures be changed in order to enable him to nominate an order of priority. He has made a sufficient number of points to make that part of the debate amply clear.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —We are not even at that point yet. The motion before the Chair is that a sessional order be suspended to permit such a motion to be moved. Senator Chaney is going to the detail of the report and I think he could confine his remarks to the motion. I understand the problem, but the motion is for the suspension of the sessional order.

Senator CHANEY —The only reference I have made to the report was a brief reference to its establishing that 37,000 Australians were prosecuted by the Tax Commissioner during the last financial year while our Treasurer was blissfully going along without having filed his tax return. I am citing a parliamentary committee report which suggests that there is a massive and continuing breakdown in the administration of the Australian Tax Office, and that is a matter which needs to be debated now because within a matter of days this Senate will be called upon to commit the people of Australia to spending, on the Government's estimate, some $700m on an identity card which we will not have tattooed on our wrists but which certainly we will all have to carry around, produce and do all sorts of things with. The Government is seeking to put a vast and expensive new system in place at a time when this report has been brought forward about an office which is failing to utilise existing systems. Taxes are not being collected because of a gross failure to administer existing laws and use existing powers. I do not wish to trespass unduly on the time of the Senate but I hope that within the Senate there is considerable support for the proposition that the time to debate the deficiencies in the Taxation Office is now. This is not the time to be debating the relatively minor matters which are also before us.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Before I call Senator Evans, I point out to the Senate that the time taken up in this debate, by sessional order, will come out of the time available for the consideration of papers.