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Monday, 24 May 1999
Page: 5147

Senator CONROY —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Senator Alston. Does the minister recall informing the Senate on 17 February 1999:

. . . trying to exempt food would be an absolute nightmare, a legal maze, a quagmire into which small business would sink without compensation for it.

Given the minister's concerns regarding the cost to small businesses of exempting food from the GST, what compensation would be necessary if food were to be exempted?

Senator Carr —No brief?

Senator ALSTON (Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —You do not need a brief on this one, Senator Carr. The fact is that Senator Conroy's belated interest in the subject matter is welcome but, unfortunately, Labor dealt themselves out of a place at the table many, many months ago. If you had wanted to be serious about tax reform you had every opportunity. You have been urged by some of your retired colleagues to actually get fair dinkum about the issue. Mr Della Bosca wears a halo these days, doesn't he, amongst some of you? There he is; he is out there telling you that you made monumental mistakes in not talking to the government about Telstra.

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT —Senator, would you direct your remarks to the chair. Senators on my left should cease shouting.

Senator ALSTON —Madam President, we should not have jokes interjected like that; we could somehow be asked to take them seriously. The fact is, of course, that the government will be seriously addressing all the issues that Labor manifestly failed to address, that they had the opportunity to address. The discussions that we are having with the Australian Democrats are very constructive, unlike the obstructive approach that you have adopted from day one. I can understand why it is, because Mr Beazley is a burned out case. He is not interested in reform of any shape or sort. And, of course, the last thing he would want is to have to sit down and go through the long hard slog of trying to work out what might be doable and what is not.

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator ALSTON —Nice of you to turn up before half-time, Senator Ray.

The PRESIDENT —Order! There are far too many interjections. I have already spoken to Labor senators. Your behaviour is not in accordance with the standing orders. Some are persistently and I believe wilfully breaching the orders.

Senator ALSTON —What ought to be recognised is that the Australian Democrats went through the last election campaign acknowledging that the GST had particular virtues in terms of reforming the Australian taxation system. They know that it will remove all of those monumentally complicated arrangements that currently exist because of the wholesale sales tax arrangements. You are not interested in any of those. You have not learned from the experience of the last election, where the punters caught you short. You were stark naked, going into the election with no policies. It is a criminal offence in electoral terms, and you just cannot get away with it.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Alston, you must address your remarks to the chair and not directly across the chamber.

Senator ALSTON —Madam President, the GST will introduce a much simpler approach than the current wholesale sales tax system, particularly for small businesses. The new pay-as-you-go system will replace five different and complex systems. So small business will be a major winner. And, of course, all of those who had the chance at the last election and voted yes know full well that there is only one game in town, and you are not part of it.