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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 1734

Senator COOK —I shall ask a brief question of the Minister for Finance, as Minister representing the Treasurer. Is the Government aware of calls within the community for a constitutional referendum to provide a barrier against retrospective tax legislation? What would be the implications of such a barrier? From what sources are the calls for a constitutional referendum emanating?

Senator Sheil —From Queensland.

Senator WALSH —Somebody said Queensland. I am told that it was Senator Sheil. Such calls may be coming from Queensland as well; I will take his word for that. The Government is aware of calls for a constitutional referendum to ban totally retrospective legislation. While I accept that such calls may come from the Queensland National Party, I must point out that they also come from another source. The National Party Council meeting held last weekend passed this motion:

That it be a condition of coalition in government that-

(a) there shall be no retrospective tax legislation introduced by that government; and

(b) there shall be a referendum to provide a constitutional barrier to retrospective legislation unless that legislation is supported by a majority of States.

That motion came from the Western Australian branch of the National Party. It distresses me-although it does not particularly surprise me-that National Party thinking in Western Australia is very much aligned with that in Queensland. Fortunately, that is not true of the respective State populations as a whole. I have been asked about the implications of such a barrier. First, one would have to determine what `retrospective' actually means. If one took a full literal definition of `retrospective' one would find that it would apply to any law which had application prior to its receiving royal assent. In other words, any changes to the taxation law designed to close loopholes or end malpractices would be in the Parliament for anything from weeks to months being debated and notice would be given to all actual and would-be tax avoiders that they had to get their particular rort in before the Governor-General gave the royal assent to the legislation and it was not outlawed by--

Senator Newman —On a point of order, Mr President: I draw your attention to the fact that the Minister is flatly ignoring your request to keep answers short, which you made just a few moments ago.

The PRESIDENT —I have no power to tell the Minister how to answer the question, but I would point out that the number of questions answered today has been very small.

Senator WALSH —Senator Newman has to try to compete with the `mouth from the south', I suppose. She has to do something to get herself noticed. The problem of a definition is pretty obvious. The second point that is even more obvious is that people who cheat honest taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars-and assorted members of the Liberal and National parties did this in the late 1970s and early 1980s-would be able to pocket that money and keep it. In doing so they would deprive millions of honest Australian taxpayers of that money, thereby requiring those honest taxpayers to pay more tax than they should or need to pay.

Finally, the fact that that came from Western Australia suggests that the members of the Liberal Party's finance committee must have joined the National Party in Western Australia. I am also aware of calls in the United States of America, backed strongly by President Reagan, for a constitutional amendment to make it a constitutional requirement to bring in a balanced Budget. That comes from a President who blew out the Budget deficit, I think to about $200 billion, from $50 billion or $60 billion, or whatever it was that he recorded. In other words, the people who pass these sorts of facile motions about all sorts of things should rarely be taken seriously, except in this case, of course, as the National Party has such an affinity with tax avoiders and evaders that perhaps it should be taken seriously.

Senator Georges —Mr President, I raise a point of order. I did not interrupt the Minister while he was answering the question, but I would like to have an explanation of your ruling that you have no power over the way a Minister answers a question. I know you have been struggling, since you became President, to bring some order into Question Time, and I know that you are bound by precedents created by your predecessors, but what I would suggest is that you ought to ignore those precedents and consider that a Minister, in answering a question, ought to be relevant; he ought not to respond to matters outside his responsibility; he ought not to debate the subject of the question; he ought not to use offensive words contrary to the Standing Orders; and he ought not in any other way be disorderly. I would suggest, Mr President, that you take up these matters with the Leader of the House to try to bring some semblance of order to Question Time, which you would agree is rapidly getting out of hand.

The PRESIDENT —In reply to the point of order, I am well aware that standing order 100 says that a senator shall not debate the matter. There is therefore a fine line in what the President can do in asking a Minister not to debate the matter because, as I say again, there is no power as to how a Minister shall answer a question, particularly when the Minister is relevant to the question. I am aware that this is causing great difficulties and I am aware of the number of questions that have been asked today and on earlier days during the session, to which I referred earlier. But I can assure you that I will carry out the Standing Orders in the way that my predecessors have done, and I will ask the Ministers to take that into account when I call them to order.

Senator Georges —Mr President, I raise a further point of order. My suggestion is that you ought to ignore your predecessors and set your own precedents, and that you ought to consider not only relevancy but also the manner in which the question is answered. Most of the answers have been what I would consider to be disorderly, and I think you have power over that. If you are in some way limited by the precedents set by your predecessors, I suggest that you are in a position to ignore that.

The PRESIDENT —Standing order 99 clearly deals with the way Senate questions shall be asked, and I am carrying out standing order 99 and trying to ensure that there is some sense of fairness during Question Time in the chamber.