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Tuesday, 2 December 1986
Page: 3142

Senator CHANEY —My question is addressed to the Leader of the Government in the Senate. I refer to his extraordinary suggestion yesterday that the tax affairs of the Treasurer of Australia, the man responsible for the whole taxation system and the man whom Senator Richardson intends to make the next Prime Minister, should be treated just like those of any other taxpayer and remain purely a matter between Mr Keating and the Commissioner of Taxation. My question concerns yet another example of the appalling double standards of the members of this Government. Does the Minister recall that when Mr John Reid was appointed by the Fraser Government to the Committee of Review of Commonwealth Administration he was bitterly attacked by the then Leader of the Opposition Mr Hayden, who alleged that he was involved in bottom of the harbour activities? Does the Minister recall that Mr Hayden moved a motion in the House of Representatives condemning the appointment and calling on the Government to have Mr Reid stand down from the Committee and from other boards until-I quote from Mr Hayden's motion-`these matters have been fully investigated'? Does the Minister suggest that the tax affairs of Mr Reid, a non-elected private citizen doing a job for the Government who was subsequently given a complete clearance by the Commissioner of Taxation, were of sufficient public interest to require him to step down while the allegations were investigated, but that doubts about the taxation affairs of the second-most influential Minister in this Government, the Treasurer of Australia, are, as has been said by Senator Button, to be no business of the Government, the Parliament or the people? Why does the Government not demand of its own Treasurer the same standards it sought to apply to a private citizen only four years ago?

Senator BUTTON —I understand the importance of these questions to the Opposition when it is getting editorial headlines such as `Dry rot' and `Rising damp' describing its attitudes to the economy. No wonder honourable members opposite have to concentrate on the delay of the Treasurer in filing a tax return. I can understand their concern.

Senator Chaney —Let us see what the people of Australia think about you and your defence.

Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney is getting a bit hysterical again. He should calm down. The fact of the matter is that this issue, which, as I said, involves a delay by the Treasurer in the filing of a tax return, has been the subject of a statement by him to the House of Representatives. It has been a matter of public debate and the desperate attempts of the Opposition to extend it into some major tax scandal are rather pathetic. I said yesterday that the contents of a tax return are a matter between the Commissioner of Taxation and an individual citizen of this country. That is a matter of record and it is a matter of law, and the Opposition ought to begin to realise that. Senator Chaney tried to draw an analogy between a public debate which was taking place about contrived tax avoidance schemes which flourished--

Senator Chaney —Oh!

Senator BUTTON —Yes, and which were the subject of comment by the Costigan Royal Commission on the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union and others; a series of tax schemes which thrived under members of the Opposition when they were in government under the treasurership of Mr John Howard. Those were matters of public discussion, and Mr Reid was not asked to make public his personal tax returns in any allegations made by Mr--

Senator Chaney —We haven't asked for that either. We have asked whether the Government is satisfied.

Senator BUTTON —No, Senator Chaney tried to put into issue yesterday the contents of Mr Keating's tax return, which is a matter--

Senator Chaney —You have a very bad memory.

Senator BUTTON —No, Senator Chaney did. He tried to put it in issue by making some shonky allegations about whether he had owned part of an antique shop at some stage or other. That is what the honourable senator tried to do yesterday. I do not know whether it is selective memory loss or just amnesia from which the Opposition suffers in relation to what it was alleging yesterday, but that is what it tried to put in issue yesterday. That is a totally different issue from the purported analogy which Senator Chaney attempts to draw on this question.

Senator CHANEY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. It appears that the Leader of the Government in the Senate has lost his memory. What I asked him yesterday was whether the Government had made inquiries to satisfy itself that the Treasurer's tax affairs were in order. That was the specific inquiry that he refused to answer yesterday. I again ask him: Why is it that, in the view of the Australian Labor Party four years ago, Mr Reid's tax affairs had to be investigated and he had to stand down while that happened, when the Labor Party assertion yesterday, and again today, is that the Treasurer's tax affairs are no one's business except for the Treasurer and the Commissioner of Taxation?

Senator BUTTON —The point I have already made, but which I will repeat for Senator Chaney's edification, is that it is not the business of the Government to inquire into the details of the tax returns of any citizen in this country, including the Treasurer. It is not the function of government to do that, and if the honourable senator looked at the tax legislation he would understand why.

Senator Chaney —What about Mr Reid?

Senator BUTTON —In respect of Mr Reid, let me make it quite clear that, as I said earlier, investigations were conducted by royal commissions and other bodies. The only time they really fell down was when that file was left in the bottom drawer by Senator Durack.

Senator Durack —Mr President, I raise a point of order. I ask for the withdrawal of that remark from Senator Button, as it is the same allegation that Senator Walsh has already made here, and is about to repeat again. I ask Senator Button to withdraw that totally untrue statement that he has just made about me.

Senator Sir John Carrick —Mr President, on the point of order: I remind you, Mr President, that you ruled several days ago that it was an offence for, I think, Senator Walsh to say what he said, and he had to withdraw. You ruled yesterday on an identical subject and Senator Button had to withdraw. You now have before you an aggravated offence. It is the same issue; the same comment was made; it is an aggravated offence. I draw your attention to that.

Senator Button —Mr President, on the point of order: The allegation which Senator Walsh was asked to withdraw, and did withdraw, was an allegation that Senator Durack had sat on a file or kept it in his bottom drawer for a number of years when he was Attorney-General. But the allegation went further than that. It suggested that he had done that in order to protect his preselection from a collection of tax avoiders then operating in the Western Australian branch of the Liberal Party. That was the allegation which Senator Walsh was asked to withdraw and did withdraw. I do not make that allegation at all. I only make the allegation which was made by the Costigan Royal Commission.

Senator Chaney —Mr President, the allegation made by Senator Button was quite clear and I do not wish to dignify it by repeating it again, as he has just done, in contempt of your previous ruling-and the giggling staff of the Minister for Finance might behave properly in the Parliament as well.

Senator Grimes —Oh, sit down, you pompous ass.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I am in charge of the proceedings of the Senate, and if Senator Chaney has any complaint about the conduct of honourable senators I suggest that he address his remarks to me. I take it that Senator Chaney is speaking on the point of order.

Senator Chaney —I am speaking on the point of order, and I am suggesting that the Leader of the Government is behaving in contempt of your earlier ruling. He repeated it, I think just to demonstrate how clever he is, and I believe that you should call him to order. The allegation he made about Senator Durack is, again, quite objectionable and should be withdrawn, and I suggest that you restrain Ministers from simply repeating these objectionable matters under the guise of responding to a point of order.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I have checked the Hansard. On Friday Senator Walsh was asked by me, as a result of an objection by Senator Durack, to withdraw a statement made about Senator Durack along the lines outlined by Senator Button today. Yesterday Senator Button made a certain statement, to which Senator Durack took objection on the basis that there was an imputation contained in that statement. I asked Senator Button to withdraw and he withdrew. It appears to me that the statement made by Senator Button today is along the same lines as that made yesterday, and I therefore ask him to withdraw any imputation against Senator Durack contained in his statement.

Senator BUTTON —Mr President, I withdraw. I was just making the point that I had already made in answer to the original question that--

Senator Chaney —That you have double standards.

Senator BUTTON —I am sorry, Mr President, but Senator Chaney's witticism upset me. I am making the point, which I made in my answer to the earlier part of the question, that there is a distinction between the personal tax returns of a citizen of this country which are protected by law, even though some people steal letters and things, and public discussion over matters revealed in royal commission reports about schemes deliberately devised to avoid tax.