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Tax file number legislation comes under attack from members of the Opposition since letters had been addressed to people who had died and many sent to wrong addresses

KEVIN CHAPMAN: This week, we're taking advantage of a parliamentary non-sitting week to focus on tax file numbers. We have a progress report from the Committee inquiring into pay TV, and the parliamentary transport offices talk about their work.

On the 3rd of May 1989 Liberal Senator, Tony Messner, successfully moved a reference to the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration. It concerned tax file numbers. The reference was particularly critical of the Australian Tax Office for not adequately protecting the privacy of Australian citizens.

First, to set the scene. In 1986 the Government wanted to introduce an Australia Card - a universal ID which was rejected in the Senate by the combined vote of the Opposition and the Australian Democrats. Next came legislation for tax file numbers . . . The Taxation Laws Amendment (Tax File Numbers) Act, which was eventually agreed to by the Opposition last year, in spite of much hectoring by the Australian Democrats. From the beginning of this year, the Opposition has been revealing flaws in administration of the tax file system. The Commissioner of Taxation, Mr Boucher, conceded that letters had been addressed to people who have died; and that many were sent to wrong addresses, because people had moved and not informed the Tax Office. A persistent Questioner has been Mr Peacock, who on the 9th of March led discussion on the following Matter of Public Importance: and I quote

"The failure of the Government to take all reasonable steps to ensure that security safeguards and procedures are in place to prevent unauthorised access to and disclosure of tax file information."

Mr Peacock criticised Treasurer Paul Keating for lack of concern about administrative bungles.

EXTRACT: (House of Representatives proceedings 9.3.89)

ANDREW PEACOCK: The Opposition brings this Matter of Public Importance before the Parliament today. An element of the concern we have would have been perceived by anyone listening or observing Question Time today. I ask the Treasurer a question, reminding him of his responsibility to this Parliament for the administrative of the tax file number legislation. That the bluff and bluster that we're used to, what exuded through that answer was the answer of a man who does not have a clue about that legislation and does not have a care.

UNIDENTIFIED: Hear, Hear!

ANDREW PEACOCK: The arrogance and the sanctimony with which he treats the civil liberties of individuals, bears out just how hypocritical the Government was last year when we were seeking to hold up the passage of that tax file legislation because we were concerned about privacy implications and civil liberties implications, we were constantly traduced as allegedly holding up the legislation to protect the tax cheats.

KEVIN CHAPMAN: Another persistent critic has been the Member for Moreton Mr Don Cameron, who provided this colourful comment.

EXTRACT: (House of Representatives proceedings 9.3.89)

DON CAMERON: I had my telephone ringing like an SP bookmaker's shop, with people who were spouses of the deceased and one of my constituents he had three in the letterbox belonging to other people at his home and another one into his Post Office box, he said, `I've got five tax file numbers, what am I going to do?' Well, I wasn't going to say, `Go your hardest. Not me.'

KEVIN CHAPMAN: Mr Cameron concluded:

EXTRACT: (House of Representatives proceedings)

DON CAMERON: The whole tax file thing has been an utter fiasco, an utter disgrace of administration of its worst order. The Tax Commissioner either blamed people who didn't write back to say they've shifted, and that included dead people, and people who, you don't have an obligation to keep writing to Tax Commissioner, once enough is bad enough as far as the vast majority of the population sees it.

KEVIN CHAPMAN: For the Government, the Member for Canning, George Gear, queried the motives of the Opposition.

EXTRACT: (House of Representatives proceedings)

GEORGE GEAR: For those people in the Gallery, they can see what the Liberal and National Party are all about today. All they're about is having a bit of a laugh and a chuckle, down here, not about about the legislation, not about the legislation. What they're having a laugh and chuckle about amongst themselves is the fact that there was an error made in the Australian Taxation Office, and error that has been admitted by the Commissioner, in sending out notices to people that shouldn't have received them. That's been admitted. And one has to ask the question, why do we have this MPI here today? I mean the only reason we have it is because of the actions of the Australia Taxation Office and as the Commissioner has pointed, he's apologised, he has said that it shouldn't have happened and they're trying to make sure that it doesn't happen again. But that's the whole thing, this Opposition really do not have a focal point, they don't have any policies, there is nothing of substance in their attacks. Nothing today, all we heard from the Deputy Leader of the Opposition was a frothy attack playing to Gallery, much like the Member for Moreton, all froth and bubble, no substance. And yet the Member for Moreton has the audacity to start lecturing us about tax cheating.

KEVIN CHAPMAN: Excerpts from debate in the House of Representatives in early March. On April the 13th, Mr Peacock presented a petition on tax file numbers. This petition alleged maladministration by the Australian Taxation Office in sending out between 84,000 and 135,000 tax file numbers to people either dead or no longer at that address. It criticised the Taxation Office for sending out tax file numbers in unsealed envelopes. And the petition also accused the Australian Taxation Office of failing to abide by the provisions of the Privacy Act and the legislation authorising implementation of the tax file number system. The petition had 60 signatories - that is, all the available members of the Opposition in the House of Reps. This was the first time the Opposition had chosen to use a petition to express dissatisfaction with the Government. Don Cameron organised the petition to highlight how the Government was riding roughshod over legislative requirements. With the blessing of the Opposition Joint Party meeting, and the help of parliamentary staff, he drafted a motion proposing that the Peacock petition be referred to a parliamentary committee. Here's what happened in the Chamber.

EXTRACT: (House of Representatives proceedings)

DON CAMERON: And we in the Opposition believe that the tax file number system is so vital to the liberties of our fellow Australians that it is high time that the administration by the Tax Office came under scrutiny of our Parliament, the people who made the legislation and made the system possible. We put it in place, it's not working, there's been bungle after bungle, we've now entered a new era of utter disregard by the Taxation Commissioner of the requirements of the Act and we believe that we've got this obligation to look at it and to examine what's to go on, and to remind the Taxation Office who is the master of the legislation of the Parliament.

KEVIN CHAPMAN: It's not often that a petition is referred to a parliamentary committee. And, predictably, the Cameron motion was defeated in the Reps in a division on party lines. In the other House, where there's no Government majority, Senator Tony Messner has also been pursuing the Government on the tax file numbers matter. On the 3rd of May he gained support from the Democrats for the matter to be considered by a Senate Committee. His motion was virtually identical to the earlier Peacock petition. Here's Senator Messner. EXTRACT: (Senate proceedings 3.5.89)

TONY MESSNER: At the time that the Bill was being discussed in the Senate the spokesman for the Liberal and National parties, on this matter, made it quite clear that, notwithstanding the passage of privacy legislation, and the adequacy, as it would be regarded at the time, of that legislation, the Liberal and National parties would continue to monitor the legislation and its administration by the Taxation Office to see that, in fact, privacy was protected, that the rights of individual taxpayers, and individuals generally within the community were properly safeguarded. We have to say that this having been in operation now, only since in official terms, since the 1st of March this year, a little over two months ago, that we've come to the conclusion that those privacy conditions have not, generally, been adequately adhered to by the Government. Now this is, I put it to you, at a very early stage in the history of the tax file number system, within the first few months this has occurred. And we have seen, therefore, a collapse of the agreement that this party, the Liberal and National parties, made with the Government in supporting their legislation last year. And that is why we have sought to bring this matter to the attention of the Senate and of the public generally in recent weeks, and why we now seek to refer the matter to a Senate Standing Committee where it can be further examined and perhaps other cases found and a line of action recommended to the Parliament whereby we could correct this matter.

KEVIN CHAPMAN: Senator Messner. Australian Democrat Leader, Janine Haines, was equally critical of both major parties.

EXTRACT: (Senate proceedings)

JANINE HAINES: It's generally I think cold comfort after the event to be able to say, `I told you so'. But, cold comfort or not, I think that's what has to be said in relation to this matter. The fact is that the Democrats said last year that this legislation wouldn't work, we said last year the safeguards were more apparent than real, we said last year that the Opposition was being conned by the Government and allowing itself to be conned for reasons that were never made clear to us. They paid no attention when we pointed out to them anomalies, loop holes, gaps in the legislation, clauses that weren't going to work and whole sections of the legislation that left people unprotected in a variety of ways from bureaucrats, from information falling into the wrong hands, from information being released without their knowledge, from information being contained on files that was neither up to date nor accurate. This whole sorry mess has occurred as a result of the collusion that occurred last year between the Coalition parties and the Government. It was inevitable from the beginning of that little deal that we would end up where we are today. There was no reason for any of this to happen and if people can not be, at least partly, assured that the Government and the bureaucracy is doing everything it can to make sure that the files are accurate and up to date, and not abused, and not ill-used, and not released improperly, if people can't be assured of that one wonders just exactly what sort of a society we are living in.

KEVIN CHAPMAN: Senator Haines. Responding for the Government, Finance Minister, Peter Walsh, referred to `wild allegations and conspiracy theories.' He also sought to explain the Tax Commissioner's problems.

EXTRACT: (Senate proceedings)

PETER WALSH: Taxation assessments have always gone out to people who are dead or people who have changed their addresses. And taxation assessments have always had a tax file number on them, or if not always, certainly for as long as I've known anything about them, had a tax file number on them. Admittedly, it went out to fewer people. And while I'm on this point, I am astounded that even the Democrats, that even the Democrats, could believe that it is possible for the Tax Office to have a totally up to date set of records, firstly about who is still living and who is not, and secondly, about where they live. I mean, surely even the Democrats could work out that if the Tax Office posts a letter with, let's say, a tax assessment in it to, on the same day that somebody dies, the letter won't be delivered until some time afterwards, may be several days, may be a week. Now what we're seeing here so far as the Opposition is concerned is that latest instalment of an ongoing campaign against the Commissioner of Taxation, as my colleague John Dawkins pointed out in the House of Representatives today, and I don't wish to be too uncharitable, but I do have a suspicion that the real reason for the hostility to the Commissioner of Taxation displayed by the Opposition, is that he is cracking down effectively on some of their tax dodging mates.

KEVIN CHAPMAN: Senator Walsh was the only Government spokesman to respond in any detail to the Opposition's criticisms. The combined vote of Opposition and Democrat Senators ensured success for the reference to the Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration. The Committee's due to report by the 30th of June. The man at the centre of the Opposition attack, Taxation Commissioner, Trevor Boucher, will appear at a public hearing in Canberra next Wednesday. Another witness will be the Privacy Commissioner, Kevin O'Connor. We'll keep you posted on what happens.