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Thursday, 27 May 1999
Page: 5598

Senator COOK (3:05 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Assistant Treasurer (Senator Kemp) to a question without notice asked by Senator Conroy today, relating to the cost of books under the proposed new tax system.

In question time today Senator Conroy asked, I thought, an important question, a very important question for Australia, of the government. What we have here is the ACCC, the body that under legislation is required to monitor proper conduct by business in Aus tralia, taking action to `persecute'—and I use that word deliberately—an Australian company. The ACCC is persecuting and hounding an Australian company—and why is it doing so?

This company is a book store. This company sells books, and there is no wholesale sales tax on books. What does this company do? On its receipts to its customers, it puts the words `books will cost 10 per cent more with a GST'. The government's watchdog on corporate crime and proper conduct in the business world is hounding an Australian company because it dares put on its bills to its consumers `books will cost 10 per cent more with a GST'.

If this is an act of political censorship—the government knows that public opinion is running against it; it knows that over 51 per cent, according to the Newspoll, and 54 per cent, according to the Age poll, are opposed to a GST; and it has sooled its corporate watchdog onto an innocent Australian company, expressing its view about a law that will impact on its business—I have never seen a more naked example of it than what we are seeing today. The ACCC has indicated that one of the remedies which may be visited on this company—a remedy in the sense of penalising it—is that damages may be required to be paid to persons who have suffered loss. The people who will suffer a loss under a GST are all consumers in Australia. All this company is doing is alerting its customers that if this law passes—I again reiterate that the Labor Party is opposed it but if against our wishes this law passes—then all of those customers of that book store will be paying 10 per cent more because of a GST.

The actions of the ACCC are oppressive. They are an excessive use of force by the ACCC against an innocent company. They attack free speech. They appear—and I stress the word `appear'—to be politically motivated. It is an indication of how sensitive this government is to its waning fortunes on a GST that a corporate watchdog should be used in this way. The minister declined to instruct the ACCC to desist.

It is unfortunate that the Australian Democrats are not here for this debate, because there is an important question here for both the government and the Australian Democrats who seem to be the new-found friends of the government in this tax. We put a proposal to this chamber in debating the GST legislation that on the docket a consumer receives at the check-out there should be the price paid for the goods that they have bought, the tax they have to pay under a GST and the total price. We put forward that amendment to the government's GST package because, if that law against our wishes were to be carried, we wanted Australians to know how much tax they are paying on the goods they buy under a GST.

Who voted it down? The Democrats and the government voted it down. Both of them joined forces to vote that amendment down. Thus, if this law passes, consumers in Australia will be denied the right to know how much tax they are actually paying on their purchases. Senator Woodley at least had the good grace to admit that the reason why they were voting it down was a political motivation—the tax would not stand if people knew how much they have to pay under a GST.

There is a question here of consumer rights, but there is also a question here of political censorship of industry. There ought not be any law against free speech in this country, a law which says that companies are bound not to say things the government dislikes. It is a fact that books will cost 10 per cent more under a GST. Because the government says it will not, it is a curb on the right of that company to say it. Senator Lees joined with the book industry earlier this month in putting out advertisements saying, `No GST on learning; no tax on knowledge; no GST on books.' I commend her for that. That is, in part, the Australian Labor Party's position. We want no GST on anything. (Time expired)