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Thursday, 20 November 1986
Page: 2573

Senator SHORT(10.30) —I want briefly to support, but very strongly, the motion by Senator Messner. Of all the issues confronting the Australian community today it is hard to think of one that is more important and certainly one that is debated more than the general question of taxation. It is a subject we have seen increasingly in recent months, weeks and days hit the headlines, particularly in the area of the administration of the taxation laws of this country and the procedures that are to apply. If we are to have a tax system which is fair and equitable, it must not only recognise the need for people to pay tax as well as have the appropriate procedures to ensure that they do, but it must also develop procedures to ensure that the basic rights and civil liberties of taxpayers in the Australian community are protected.

There is no doubt that there is a great deal of concern in the community about the activities of the Australian Taxation Office. I believe that some of those fears and concerns are well-founded. Others perhaps are not so well-founded. The important thing is that at the moment the system is under criticism and under very great scrutiny. We have only to look at some of the headlines of last week to see this. For example, the Commissioner of Taxation has conceded that there are considerable problems in the Tax Office. Mr Boucher was quoted in an interview in the Australian Financial Review last week as saying that all is not well with the Tax Office and that senior officers had been meeting management consultants to set priorities for improvements. Concern was expressed by the Tax Commissioner himself about the administration of his own office, and that must automatically lead to concern being expressed by the Taxation Commissioner and the Tax Office about its ability and capacity to administer the taxation system as presently legislated on an efficient and equitable basis.

Other reports in the last week or so claim that the Tax Office is in fact acting outside the law. A study of the taxation system has found that the Australian Tax Office has effectively been making tax laws that are either inconsistent with legislation, against political intent, or do not have the sanction of the law. In some cases tax reform legislation which has been backdated contains measures which were not announced or even expected at the time of the reform announcement. Learned academics in the field of taxation have said that it would appear that the real tax policy is made by the bureaucracy rather than the Parliament.

Those allegations are very serious indeed and they go to the very heart of whether the administration of perhaps the most important area of government activity at the Federal level is efficient and is being carried out appropriately. I do not think anyone within this Parliament could conceivably deny that the matters we are talking about, namely, the procedures followed by the Taxation Commissioner and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on the whole question of raising and amending income tax assessments, the imposition of penalties, interest on such assessments, and dealing with objections and appeals against them, which is, of course, the crux of Senator Messner's motion, are very important issues; as are the matters contained in the second part of the honourable senator's motion, that is, the need to have a look at the possible changes required to streamline and simplify the existing system and to safeguard the rights of taxpayers.

I repeat: No more important subject could be considered to be the propriety and requirement of this Parliament than to be sure that we, as legislators and as the developers of administration, are right in what we are doing. To say, as Senator Siddons did, that he has sympathy with the views and the concepts put forward by Senator Messner but would nevertheless not support Senator Messner's motion, I find a strange proposition. Some of the points he made simply do not stand up to the light of day. The fact that there has been a National Taxation Summit, that there has been wide ranging debate on the issues, the principles and the policies of taxation, has nothing at all to do with the question of whether particular procedures in the administration of taxation are appropriate or not. As Senator Siddons would have to concede, I am sure, it is simply not possible on the floor of this chamber to have adequate debate and consideration of all those issues. The Senate does not have the scope or the ability to do that.

The whole purpose of the development of the Senate committee system over the last 10 or 15 years, which has done so much to improve government administration, was to enable the Senate to obtain very careful and detailed advice, following very detailed and careful consideration by its senators in committees who would act, and look into things, in a much less political partisan manner than occurs automatically on the floor of this chamber. If Senator Siddons is serious in expressing sympathy with the intent of Senator Messner's motion, why has he not put up one proposition which stands up to the light of serious consideration as to why he will not support the motion? To say that the issue is so fundamental and divisive that the only place for debate on the issue is in the Parliament itself seems to me to turn logic on its head. If we want a rational debate on this issue-as I assume we all want if we wish to rationally consider it-the very thing we must do is take it out of this hothouse and put it in the quiet environment of a Senate committee where we do not have to play politics and where we can sit around a table to look at things in a sensible way. I fail to understand Senator Siddons's point of view.

The other point Senator Siddons made was that it would be putting too much responsibility on the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations. Again I find that an extraordinary statement. Senate committees are made up of responsible senators. If senators do not have the responsibility to handle their task adequately on the floor of this chamber they should not be here. They are the same people who would be looking at issues, in small committee groups in a less hothouse environment, which are of concern to us all. I think Senator Siddons denigrates the committee system very gravely in saying that to put a motion such as this, which was moved by Senator Messner, to a committee puts too much responsibility on that committee. What about all the other vast and very important issues that have been dealt with so well by Senate committees over so many years? They have done much to lift the status and the role of the Senate within the community. So again, with respect, I say to Senator Siddons that that is a nonsense argument.

The other point Senator Siddons mentioned, and which the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Coates, echoed, was that the Finance and Government Operations Committee is already heavily committed with other references. I am a member of that Committee and I accept that it does have a not inconsiderable work load, but it does not have a work load that is so heavy that it could not take a reference such as this. It is a question of ordering priorities, as is the case with any committee. If one looks at the Notice Paper one will see that the current inquiries under way by the Finance and Government Operations Committee do not constitute a work load of such overwhelming magnitude that this reference could not be taken on board for practical reasons. That is not a real issue at all.

The reason for the opposition to Senator Messner's motion was summed up by Senator Coates in his final point. He said that the issue was really that the Opposition disagrees with the Government's policy. That is really what the opposition to this motion is all about. It appears that the Government is running scared on the issue and is not prepared to have the very real issues of concern in the area of tax administration subjected to further careful, considered and deliberative scrutiny and analysis by this side of the Parliament. By this side of the Parliament I mean by the Senate as a whole in the form of a very responsible and important Committee. I say to Senator Coates that if that is the reason for not allowing the Senate to use its committee system in the way that committee system was designed to be used, he denigrates the whole system of committees. Senator Coates is the Chairman of an important Committee. The committee system deserves much better from one of its chairmen than the denigration Senator Coates is bringing to it today.

Senator Coates —You know that if you cannot get a majority report then it will be a minority report.

Senator SHORT —I do not know whether there would be a majority report and a minority report or not. The whole purpose of the motion is to consider some of these key issues. Many of them are procedural issues. We are not necessarily talking about taxation policy, although obviously some policy elements are involved. A great deal of it is procedural. By refusing to allow this issue to be considered carefully, calmly and deliberatively by the Senate, Senator Coates is, in effect, saying to the Parliament and, therefore, to the people of Australia that he is not prepared to use all the resources at the disposal of the Parliament to ensure that we have the best administration possible of, perhaps, the key issue of government administration, namely, the taxation system.

I realise that there is no point at all in talking to Government senators on this issue but through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, I urge the Australian Democrats to reconsider their attitude towards this motion because, if they vote against it, they will never be able to hold up their heads again in this chamber, in the Parliament and in the Australian community and say that they are serious about the proper administration of the laws of this country and, most important of all, the taxation system. If they do not support this motion they will be seen for the party they are-a group of opportunists who are not prepared to tackle the real issues and who are just here for their own cynical political ends.