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Friday, 22 June 2012
Page: 4273

Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (14:29): The Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012 is not a bill that we are intending to oppose; in fact, we support it in principle. This is the 10th bill designed to improve aspects of the financial framework under which the acts of Australia operate. In fact, the program of going about repairing the financial framework when issues arise has been ongoing since 2004 and therefore is something that was begun under Treasurer Peter Costello. This particular bill would amend 21 acts across six portfolios to regularise Commonwealth payments. In the main it is about overpayments and underpayments of funds to people who receive payments from the Commonwealth. Certainly in regard to nine acts there is provision for authority for the inadvertent overpayments of some benefits and for their recovery in line with the duty to pursue recovery of a debt under the Financial Management and Accountability Act.

Whilst we certainly do not object to this bill, whilst we support it in principle, we do of course suggest that there must be great vigilance exercised here, primarily because of this government's inability to implement or legislate its way out of a paper bag. The fact that we are actually here having this debate today demonstrates part of the government's inability to manage its schedules, to manage its programs and to manage its legislation. The fact that all week the number of speakers on each bill has been seriously curtailed by the government-Greens decision to apply a guillotine to legislation once again demonstrates that there is no reason for anyone to have any confidence in this government's ability to implement and legislate in a way that is actually for the benefit of the Australian people or not likely to cause them harm. It simply demonstrates their complete incompetence.

When you think about the cost of having this building operating today, the cost of having so many politicians here today, the cost of having so many staff here today, you realise that the government do not have financial management ability. That is what it comes down to. When Senator Joyce spoke earlier, he gave us a long list about the fact that, if they were a small business coming into the local accountant's office, he would put them in the basket-case category. That is where they belong. That is where they will end up. Unfortunately, it cannot happen soon enough.

I am constantly bemused by their attitude of: 'Why aren't people in Australia happier? You've never had it so good.' Apart from anything else, that is a complete and utter falsehood, perpetrated by Treasurer Swan, who dishonestly persists in claiming that the economy is wonderful and not making the point that, if you are in manufacturing, if you are in tourism, if you are in retail or if you are in the construction industry in any way, you are probably doing it tough.

I watched Treasurer Swan smirking his way through his announcement about the improved GDP figures a week ago. At the same time, within a couple of hours of that, I had had news of two young men who had lost their jobs that day. One worked as a flooring contractor in a company that relies completely on the housing industry being buoyant. It is not. Has anyone noticed that the housing industry is a disaster at the moment? The other one worked for a small business that relies on the retail industry to survive, and he was a deputy manager. The owner of the business could no longer afford to employ him. The owner of the business had been waiting and waiting for the wonderful world that Treasurer Swan is promising but could no longer afford to keep this guy on. In fact, as the owner of the business is currently not making a profit and has not done so for some months, it is quite possible that the business itself will have to close. Yes, it is all very well to talk about the pain of restructuring, but for this government to sit and smirk and carry on and try to pretend that everything is all right for everybody is dishonest. But why would we be worried about the government being dishonest when they have been dishonest since the day in 2010 that they came into existence? They have been dishonest and awful.

The reason that most Australians are not leaping with pleasure over the state of the economy, despite all those wonderful markers that suggest they should be, is that life is not just about the economy. Life is also about having a government that you can trust and a government that performs. I spend a lot of time with people who ask me, some of them quite aggressively, 'When are you going to get rid of that government?' People hate the Gillard government. They do not trust it and they have now got to the stage where they expect it to behave dishonestly. They are completely cynical about politicians, about government and about the ability of Australian MPs to perform in a way that they see as being in the public interest. So it is no wonder that despite the best efforts of Treasurer Swan—despite even the Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens talking about the glass being half full—Australians see the glass as being half empty. Because it is not just about where you live; it is about how you feel, how proud you feel of your country and the way it functions, and right now Australians are ashamed of their government, completely and utterly ashamed of their government.

Senator Edwards: And tuned out.

Senator BOYCE: And yes, as Senator Edwards points out, they are tuned out because they would rather not know about it. They simply do not want to know about it.

In that context, whilst we certainly support this legislation, we are very concerned that we continue to be vigilant about how this legislation transpires, given that some of the amendments here relate to the area of superannuation, under ComSuper, and that the legislation overall seeks to correct anomalies, add clarity and ensure consistency across government acts. It aims to ensure that legislation both is up to date and properly reflects actual and efficient financial practices, and it also seeks to ensure that financial arrangements are consistent with constitutional requirements. As the member for Goldstein said in the second reading debate:

It is tedious work, but it is important work.

And that is absolutely right. It is work that is painstaking; it needs to be done with great accuracy and care. So of course we are concerned about this government's ability to legislate it properly, implement it properly and then undertake it properly. We have to be very mindful of unintended consequences and equitable outcomes. You would think that that would be something you would simply keep an eye on if you trusted the government that was doing it, but people do not trust this government so it is something that we have to watch like hawks.

There are some examples given of how the changes will affect people, and I would like to mention some of these in the time that remains to me. I will be curtailing my remarks because I know that, even with me speaking briefly, there are at least three other speakers who will not have the opportunity to speak. So I will be cutting my remarks short, but I would just like to tell you about some of the examples that have been given in the explanatory memorandum of the types of situations that might arise. One of the examples is of a discharge of a Common­wealth liability. It says:

Kath is the recipient of a $100 recoverable advance in the 2012-13 year as a result of an identified error in an interest on overpayment calculation. She lodges her income tax return in July 2013—

and is entitled to a refund of $500. The tax office then says, 'Ah, but Kath owes us $100,' and she receives a refund of $400—certainly a very efficient administrative way of going about things if it works and if Kath, the woman in the example here, is aware that that is what is going to happen. If she is not aware that that is going to happen then she may be left in a difficult situation when she spends what she expects to be her tax refund and receives less.

One of the examples that concern me relates to Defence Force veterans, widows and the like. Under this legislation, it has been made simpler for the government to seek to reclaim payments that are made to recipients in the time between when the recipient dies and when the government body is notified of that recipient's death. So we have a time when payments are made and when the person who is to be paid is no longer alive. I would be very, very concerned about how tactfully and sensitively that is handled. Of course it is reasonable for the government to reclaim payments that are made to people who no longer exist, but it is such a difficult and fraught area for people around them, who in most cases may also be recipients of benefits themselves. So this would certainly be an area that must be done very, very sensitively.

The last case I want to talk about is the recoverable advances that are made in conjunction with other payments. The example given here is that in 2009 a batch of about 228,000 co-contribution payments that were valued, all up, at about $43 million had been processed with an error in the calculation of the interest attached to 1,165 of those payments. The error was worth about $17,000. Of course, within that whole framework it would cost more to try to get the money to fix the error than to allow the error to stand and therefore for the ATO to receive about $17,000 less than it might otherwise have received. Even though it would have been more efficient and effective to allow the payments to proceed, without the recoverable advance legislation that is now going through there was a risk that the ATO would in fact be non-compliant with section 83 of the Constitution. So the proposed changes here would let the tax commissioner allow payments like that to proceed, with the excess amount then being treated as a recoverable advance if it were worthwhile to proceed with that on that basis.

Whilst, as I said, the coalition supports this legislation in principle, we continue to be concerned, and the Australian people are concerned, about this government's ability to implement its legislation in a way that is in the public interest. So I ask that vigilance be completely maintained on this.