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Thursday, 14 May 1987
Page: 3281

Mr CARLTON(10.05) —I moved a second reading amendment to the Taxation Laws Amendment Bill (No. 2) to the effect that where an officer of the Australian Taxation Office is inspecting premises of a taxpayer and requires facilities to be produced in accordance with amendments in this Bill, the Commissioner of Taxation should be responsible for all reasonable expenses incurred in making those facilities and that assistance available. The purpose of my second reading amendment was to request the Government to withdraw the Bill and to recast it in those terms. The Government, most unfortunately, has not acceded to my request. Therefore, I wish to bring to the attention of the House the position of the Opposition in relation to this matter.

Under existing provisions of the Income Tax Assessment Act and related Acts, the Commissioner has the power to require any person to attend and give evidence relating to the income or assessment of a person and to produce relevant documentation. Under this amendment there is a requirement for taxpayers to give assistance to Tax Office investigators rather than simply them allowing access and not obstructing them. I quote one of the amendments to be made by Schedule 4 of the Bill in relation to one of the various Acts to be amended, the Australian Capital Territory Taxation (Administration) Act 1969:

Section 97:

Add at the end the following subsection:

(3) The occupier of land entered or proposed to be entered by an officer under subsection (1) shall provide the officer with all reasonable facilities and assistance for the effective exercise of powers under this section.

We presume this to mean that the occupier will need to allow investigators reasonable use of such facilities as photocopying, telephones, light, power, work facilities and space. Presumably, it will also entail reasonable assistance in the form of advice as to where relevant documents are located. That would mean the use of the personnel or the people working for the company being investigated which, in turn, means time for any business which has to worry about its costs.

The Opposition is very concerned about this extension of the powers of the Commissioner. On the face of it, it is a reasonable request. The wording is quite reasonable. It looks all right. But unfortunately members of the Opposition and, we are to understand, members of the Government, have had increasing numbers of complaints through their electoral offices as to the manner in which officers of the Taxation Office conduct their investigations. We believe that in recent times an attitude has been developing which is far too dictatorial, far too demanding--

Mr Robert Brown —A lot of people pay their taxes.

Mr CARLTON —The honourable member must not misunderstand me. I have a very clear understanding of the requirement that people pay their taxes. I understand the honourable member's concern and I agree with it. I will explain the Opposition's view on this matter. There is a delicate balance between the requirement that people pay their legitimate taxes, and there is absolutely no way we will detract from that requirement, and-the honourable member may well have had representations through his office about this-the manner in which investigations are conducted. This is fundamentally a matter of civil liberties. I know, from various events and issues in which the honourable member and I have been involved, that we share an interest in this matter. It is quite a genuine interest. I think there have been enough representation to members on both sides of the House to give rise to very serious concern about the manner in which investigations are conducted and so to whether they intrude upon the civil liberties of the citizen. That must be balanced against the requirement for the proper collection of revenue. That is very difficult because it involves flesh and blood and the particular interests of many taxpayers, some of whom are quite venal and quite capable of trying to mislead. On the other hand, there is an attitude of officialdom which, if taken too far, can intrude into the civil liberties of quite decent people. It is quite a difficult matter.

The Opposition very seriously considered moving to eliminate this amendment from the Bill. In other words, we were attracted to the view that the existing access powers of the Commissioner of Taxation were quite sufficient and that the requirement as stated in the Bill for the taxpayer to provide extra facilities could be misused. In fact, we were worried that it might well be misused. I must say that within the Opposition we had quite a lot of internal argument about what we should do on this.

Dr Charlesworth —Again?

Mr CARLTON —This is a reasonable matter. One of the problems in this Parliament is that there is far too much of this sort of partisan attack.

Mr Robert Brown —On both sides?

Mr CARLTON —We do not get much chance to state our case. Most of the proceedings of this place are reported during Question Time. During Question Time it is all one-sided; we on this side do not get much of a chance to state our case in these matters. In this particular case we decided as an Opposition that we would not try to defeat clause 62 but would try to amend it so as to require the Commissioner to reimburse the taxpayer for reasonable costs incurred. However, we were advised by the Clerks of the House that it was impossible for us to move an amendment to that effect because the clause deals with a call on revenue and only a Minister can move such an amendment. Therefore, on behalf of the Opposition, I moved a second reading amendment asking the Government to withdraw the Bill and recast it with a requirement for the Commissioner to reimburse taxpayers for reasonable expenses incurred in providing assistance to the Commissioner. We regarded that as quite a reasonable request. Unfortunately the Government decided in this place-and I suppose it has not had enough time to consider the matter properly, but it may well be that it will reconsider its view before the Bill reaches the Senate-not to support the Opposition amendment and redraft the Bill accordingly.

The Opposition does not feel disposed to go as far as trying to defeat the amendment by voting against it. However, during the passage of the Bill between its consideration in this chamber and its introduction in the Senate, I urge the Government to consider the possibility of the Commissioner's being required to reimburse reasonable expenses. On those grounds we in the Opposition would be quite happy with the clause. As it stands at the moment clause 62 is quite reasonable in that it provides:

The occupier . . . shall provide the officer with all reasonable facilities and assistance for the effective exercise of powers under this section.

I think it is important for the Opposition to make the general public complaint that we are receiving an increasing number of complaints about the way in which investigations are conducted, about the way in which demands are made and about the way in which settlements are suggested where there are great penalties for taxpayers who do not accede to the requests of the Australian Taxation Office. Most of the onus is on the taxpayer in those situations. If they do not pay up according to demands, there is a very great financial penalty for them in terms of interest costs on the money involved and tremendous delays in the hearing of these matters. At the moment we think that, if taxpayers are honest, the balance tends to be against them. But we understand full well that some of the people who approach us are not people who should be supported.

Some people will go to extraordinary lengths to defeat the Commissioner in the proper pursuit of his objectives. It is a very difficult matter, and it is made more difficult by the administrative chaos which unfortunately exists within the Taxation Office at the moment because of the 800 pages of additional tax legislation that the present Treasurer has imposed upon it. That is our view on this matter. We ask that the Government reconsider this matter between here and the Senate.

The CHAIRMAN —Order! It being 10.15 p.m., I shall report progress.

Progress reported.