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Tuesday, 30 November 1965

Mr HAROLD HOLT (Higgins) (Treasurer) . - Before I deal specifically with the motion that is before the House I think I should comment very briefly, with your indulgence, Sir, on the concluding remarks of the honorable member for Sturt (Mr. Wilson) while they are fresh in our minds. I do not intend to spread myself, as one might in other circumstances in the course of another type of debate. What I want to say briefly is that in no period of Australia's history has there been a greater growth of savings in insurance policies and superannuation funds than there has been during the period of office of the Government of which I have the honour to be a member. More than seven million life policies are in force in this country and benefits worth more than £6,000 million are assured under those policies. If we examine the history of growth of these benefits we will see the phenomenal growth that has occurred during the period in which this Government has been in office. To brand the Government as the enemy of the superannuation funds, bent on their destruction, is not only a gross misrepresentation but also a quite unwarranted, unfair and unjust charge from the honorable member for Sturt, whom I have always respected and who on reflection will, I think, at least not attribute any motive of that sort to the Government. To imply that the Government would take its action without motive carries with it the imputation that we are so unaware or unmindful of the consequences that we allow these results to happen without knowing what is going on. Sir, this legislation has received the most careful scrutiny, first by the Ligertwood Committee, then by succeeding Commissioners of Taxation, by the expert officers of the Treasury, from the Secretary of the Treasury downwards, by a committee of the Cabinet and finally by the Cabinet itself. To argue that it is slipshod legislation is quite an unwarranted charge.

The honorable member for Bradfield (Mr. Turner) is always listened to with respect in this place. His thoughtful, sincere and constructive contributions invariably command our respect and the same consideration which, I assure him, has been given to this particular matter. My first argument against the proposal that he puts is this: I question whether, on the merits, the situation now before us could appropriately be dealt with by a joint select committee of the Parliament. There are situations in which it is appropriate that a joint select committee should meet and discuss matters and bring their recommendations to their fellows. We had such a case with the committee that examined the operations of our Constitution. We could consider as being apposite a case where the Parliament wished to report upon the most appropriate site, say, for a new Parliament House. Usually these are large, broad questions which invite some study and some research, but on which large answers are called for. A select committee is able to assist the rest of the Parliament by the answers that it gives. But is it appropriate for a joint select committee, which itself has a certain formality of procedure about it, to sit on the present matters, which are admittedly complex and which are, for the general run of members of the Parliament, admittedly almost incomprehensible if our objective is to achieve some result within a measurable time?

I am well aware that many honorable members - they have spoken their minds in the Parliament and outside it - feel that they have not had the opportunity that they would wish to give as much attention to elements of this Bill as they would hope to do. But we are also aware that the general interest of the country requires that devices which were costing the revenue, in the judgment of the Ligertwood Committee, £14 million a year and which, once they had been disclosed, would certainly cost the revenue a very much larger sum than that, should not go unchecked while our more leisurely processes take their course. Let me look for a moment at the sort of terms of reference that would be appropriate if we were to set up a select committee of the Parliament. I do not think the mover or seconder of the motion would challenge substantially what I am putting on this point. If we were to set up a select committee and if we were to ask ourselves what the terms of reference should be, I imagine we would think that they should run something like this - . to examine and inquire into the existing laws of the Commonwealth relating to taxation of income, and the operation of those laws, for the purpose of ascertaining any anomalies, inconsistencies, unnecessary complexities and other similar defects that exist in, or arise out of the operation of those laws, and to formulate proposals for remedying those anomalies, inconsistencies, complexities and other defects and for simplifying those laws;

That would be, I think, a fair statement of the kind of terms of reference that such a committee would have. If not, what sort of terms of reference has the proposer of the motion in mind for the committee that he envisages? I put this as a fair representation of suitable terms of reference. What I have read is the most substantial of the terms of reference that this Government gave to the Ligertwood Committee. That was a committee appointed for the purpose of making a specific inquiry. It was composed of able men who were well qualified by their experience to discharge the task that they were set. The Chairman of that Committee was qualified by his- experience in a judicial capacity and the other members were qualified by experience in either accountancy or commerce which had developed in them some specialist knowledge in these matters. No-one either then or now has challenged the qualifications of the members of the Committee. They applied themselves as industriously to the job as any member of the Parliament, I imagine, with his quite absorbing parliamentary duties, would be able to do. The Ligertwood Committee was appointed on 3rd December 1959 and it presented its report in June 1961.

Just what length pf time would be required by a select committee of both Houses of this Parliament to deal with these complex matters in the detail that would be required? I may be asked: If a matter such as this is capable of being dealt with by a committee of Government supporters, as has been the case in recent weeks, why can it not be dealt with by a joint select committee of the Parliament? Theoretically, there is no reason why the subject cannot be dealt with by a joint select committee. However, we are practical men with some knowledge of how matters proceed in this Parliament. I believe we all would agree that a committee of members of the Parliament, sitting privately and, in this instance, coming from the one side of the Parliament, can deal very much more rapidly and, I suggest, much more effectively with a matter such as this than a joint select committee could. We on this side of the Parliament have had a very able committee led by the honorable member for Parramatta (Mr. Bowen), to whom the honorable member for Bradfield has rightly paid tribute for the special knowledge and expertise that he has in these matters. I understand from the honorable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr. Crean) - the shadow Treasurer of the Opposition - that he chairs a committee of somewhat similar composition in the Opposition ranks.

Having regard to the kind of task that has to be performed by a committee inquiring into the matter with which we are now dealing, I suggest to honorable members that an inquiry can be made much more effectively and speedily by this process than by the protracted processes that would flow from the appointment of a joint select committee of the Parliament. We have committees such as the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Works Committee which are composed of members from both sides of the Parliament and from both Houses. They are able to perform their work speedily and well in dealing with specific matters which either they are asked to investigate or they themselves resolve to investigate. But I believe that the handing over to a joint select committee of the task of going over the field of income tax legislation as a whole, or even the area that is dealt with in the legislation now before us, and of discharging the task within the time necessary in order to achieve the purposes of this legislation would defeat the wishes of the Parliament as a whole.

This is a case in which I claim that the best would be the enemy of the good. I do not foresee the dire consequences that the honorable member for Sturt predicts for this legislation. I would be distressed and would feel that great damage had been done if one tithe of what he has predicted came to pass. I say that in the light of all my experience of the way in which the Commissioner of Taxation has gone about his work, the contacts he has had with superannuation funds, the arrangements that have been entered into and the formation, subsequent to the enactment of and with knowledge of the 1964 legislation, of hundreds of new funds, some of them of very great dimensions. All these factors confirm my view that, given some commonsense and some co-operation, the purposes of the Government will be achieved and the objective that we have, in common with the funds, of seeing them develop and make prosperous growth also will be accomplished.

I genuinely do not believe that the motion proposed by the honorable member for Bradfield would in this instance advance the purposes of the Parliament in either the time or the manner that honorable members would wish, and certainly not as effectively as would other methods that we can employ. In the rapidly growing Australia of today, with the enormous increase in the burdens of government that fall on Ministers and members of the Parliament, there is a need for some overhaul of our procedures. I believe that all of us here recognise that. I for one would willingly join in the kind of joint study and analysis that might produce more satisfactory procedures for us. But I do not see in the motion that we are now discussing a solution to the problem immediately before us. I have already said in other places that between now and the autumn sessional period study of the tax laws can proceed, not merely in relation to superannuation funds, but in relation to all the matters dealt with at the end of 1964. If as a result of the work of committees, on either the Government or the Opposition side of the Parliament, it can be shown that the Government's objectives can be more effectively achieved and that simplicity of the law can be promoted by any measures recommended, every consideration will be given to the recommendations made by such committees. That, I believe, is the best practical course for us to follow at present. I suggest that if this is in accord with the view of the Parliament generally we reject the motion.

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