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Tuesday, 9 March 2004
Page: 21065

Senator McLUCAS (1:35 PM) —I am very pleased to welcome the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2004 into the Senate today. It has been long awaited by those of us on this side. It is terrific to see that finally the government has brought it to this table. This is an example of the importance of an active opposition. This legislation has come to this place as a direct result of the fact that we in the opposition have kept the government to its word—the word that it gave in 1998 that there would not be a tax on a tax. I advise those senators who were not in North Queensland during the 1998 election that there was a lot of discussion at that time about how fair it may or may not be to impose the GST on the reef tax, the environment management charge.

Senator Kemp —You had better speak to the state governments about insurance.

Senator McLUCAS —I did not know that you could interject from the advisers box. I am not sure that that is allowed by the rules. There were very strong words from the coalition candidates—`Of course that would not occur. That would be a completely unfair and silly thing to do.' Industry went straight on with its business and did not impose the GST on the environment management charge.

The Australian Marine Park Tourism Operators wrote to the Assistant Treasurer in an attempt to ensure that the view that had been expressed by coalition candidates was in fact correct. On 5 June 2000 a taxation adviser from the office of the then Assistant Treasurer wrote to AMPTO and said:

The government intends to include the Environment Management Charge (EMC) in the list of taxes and charges that do not constitute consideration for the purposes of the GST.

The adviser also said:

... the Treasurer has recently made a Determination that lists the taxes and other Government charges that will not be subject to the GST.

That letter was received by AMPTO on 13 June 2000 in response to a letter they had written to make sure that the advice that they were giving to their members that they should not collect the GST on the EMC was in fact correct. Of course they then thought that having received that sort of evidence and explanation they were right, so they advised all of their members not to collect the GST on the environment management charge. So you can imagine their surprise late in 2002 when the Australian Taxation Office started auditing marine park tourism operators, particularly in the Whitsunday area, and those operators started to receive bills for the GST that should have been collected but was not. Operators were getting bills for up to $60,000. That is not the sort of money you keep in your account just in case the ATO sends you a bill for something you did not know was going to be collected.

Naturally, they did the ordinary, sensible thing: they went to their local members—those same local members who had told them absolutely, unequivocally during the 1998 election that the GST would not be applied to the reef tax. So they went to their local members and said, `This is extraordinary. This does not fit with what you told us.' One operater wrote to Mr Lindsay. Mr Lindsay did what a member of parliament would do and wrote to Senator Ian Campbell, who was the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer. Senator Campbell wrote back to Mr Lindsay and said:

You will note that the EMC/Reef Tax is not subject to GST when charged by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to the operator as per the Treasurer's determination.

But he went on:

However, it is payable when the amount charged by the operator to its customer includes the on-charged tax as part of the make-up of the price.

These are strange words to people who are out there doing their business. They were told unequivocally in 1998 that it would not be charged. They were told in a letter in 2000 that it would not be charged. And now you get this sort of doublespeak that says, `No, you do not charge it there, but you do charge it there and, yes, we want it and $15,000 later you'll be okay.' One operator was charged $60,000.

Senator Sherry —How many years ago?

Senator McLUCAS —This was many years ago, Senator Sherry.

Senator Sherry —Five or six years?

Senator McLUCAS —No, not quite that long ago.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Cherry)—Order! Senator McLucas, please address the chair.

Senator McLUCAS —I am sorry. So you can understand that the operaters were fairly disappointed. Naturally, when they were getting that sort of advice from their coalition member and it was not the advice that they thought they should be receiving, they then went to speak to other representatives who operate in the area—and, of course, they came to talk to me. It is very disappointing that sectors of the industry have been castigated by Mr Entsch, in particular, for doing that. But this is part of the democratic process. When you have been promised something and it does not occur, any constituent has a right and a responsibility to ensure that justice is delivered. It is completely inappropriate that Mr Entsch should shoot the messenger every time a person who is not getting satisfaction from the government on a matter then takes it to the opposition. What else could they have done?

My response was to do what we do in this chamber: I took it to the environment estimates and asked Senator Hill whether or not it was his view that the EMC should attract the GST. He said he did not think that that was the case. Then I went to the Treasury estimates and asked the same questions. You do not get such straight answers out of those estimates—it is a far more technical area—but it was made very clear to me at that point that it was their view that the GST should be applied to the EMC. Then I asked a question without notice in this chamber in June 2003 to bring more attention to the matter. I continued to pursue this matter on behalf of the many tourism operators that work in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area. On Thursday, 5 June 2003 when we were still not really getting very far, the Cairns Post took up the cudgels as well. The editorial said:

Given the government's commitment that the GST would not be applicable, the solution is easy. Our politicians can pass the required laws before Parliament rises for the winter recess; postpone their annual jaunts to the North and keep Parliament sitting while it amends the law; or face the ire of local tourist operators as the pollies trek north ... in coming months, when all the politicians really want to do is enjoy our beautiful weather.

That is what the Cairns Post said in June of last year; here we are in March of the following year and, yes, we have finally got the legislation but it has taken eight months from that point. I was therefore quite astonished last week when Mr Entsch put out some sort of press release or was reported in the Cairns Post as seeming to question whether or not the Labor Party would facilitate this legislation through the Senate. I was astonished because it is only that the Labor Party has pursued this matter that the legislation is here.

Last year Mr McMullan, the shadow Treasurer, and I put out a joint press release saying that we would facilitate the passage of this legislation through both houses to ensure that justice was delivered to marine park tourism operators. I raised the matter again with Mr Fitzgibbon, who was at that time the shadow minister for tourism. We put out another press release saying, `We will get this through; just bring us the legislation.' So for Mr Entsch to suggest last week that there was some question about whether or not we would ensure this legislation was passed through this chamber is quite extraordinary. This is called spin. This is very bad spin.

It has taken a lot of time and there has been a level of uncertainty in the industry. We have had operators facing bills that they had not put money aside to pay, but finally the legislation has come to fruition. Something that was started in 1998 has now been completed, and I am very pleased about that. I believe we are not going to go into committee—

Senator Ian Macdonald —Someone told me we were going into committee.

Senator McLUCAS —I want to raise some questions. I do not know whether Senator Ian Macdonald can answer these questions in committee or in his speech on the second reading. Firstly, have any operators collected GST on the EMC since its inception? Secondly, if they have—and I understand that that is the case—what will happen to those moneys? Will those moneys be refunded to the operator? I understand there is only one.

In the last couple of minutes I want to go to the point that Senator Bartlett made. Senator Bartlett talked about Mr Entsch's lack of support for the Representative Areas Program. I think Senator Bartlett was alluding to that but I would like him to go to Mr Entsch's second reading speech when this legislation was introduced in the other place. Mr Entsch said:

A third of the entire area is now protected as a no-take zone. It shows that we do have a serious commitment to taking care of the reef.

I am pleased to note that Mr Entsch has that view. That is a different view to the one he often puts in the media in North Queensland. I am pleased to see that that is what he is saying down here. It is often the case that members of parliament can seem to say one thing a long way from Canberra and a different thing down here, but I am sure the people of North Queensland will be pleased to see that Mr Entsch seems to have changed his tune.

The other thing that I found intriguing in his address was that he was saying that the government has done fantastic things for the Great Barrier Reef. The work that has been done between the Queensland government and the Commonwealth government on water quality is to be commended. It is good work and I support wholeheartedly the work that has been progressed there. But Mr Entsch says that the work that the government has done on the prohibition of mining is impressive. That was in the legislation to establish the World Heritage area in the mid-1970s. The purpose of establishing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was partly to stop oil drilling. People will remember that there was an application, supported by the Bjelke-Petersen government of the day, to drill for oil in the Great Barrier Reef region. That was partly the reason it was listed as a World Heritage area.

The other threat still exists. There are still ongoing applications to drill for oil in the Townsville Trough just outside of the marine park area as it currently exists. I suggest to Mr Entsch that if he really thinks that his government's support on the prohibition of mining is impressive then he should ensure that the legislation that I have introduced into this chamber—to extend the marine park area to the exclusive economic zone—is supported. That would ensure that we rule out once and for all the prospecting and potential drilling for oil in areas that could affect the marine park. If he really wants to support protection of the reef—in terms of `mining' in his words—in terms of prospecting and oil drilling, then he should take that opportunity.

I conclude my comments today by congratulating the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators. They have prosecuted this argument with enormous professionalism, ensuring that the interests of their members have been kept to the fore. I acknowledge, in the gallery, Mr Laurie Stroud and Mr Col McKenzie from AMPTO and commend them for the work they have done on behalf of their members. I commend this legislation to the Senate; I just wish we had had it a long time ago.