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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 38

Senator SHERRY (3:06 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Finance and Administration (Senator Minchin) and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (Senator Coonan) to questions without notice asked by senators today relating to taxation and to Telstra.

Over the last two weeks the Labor opposition has focused on a range of economic data that indicate some serious problems that the Australian community currently face with the Australian economy. In response to at least some of those questions put to Senator Minchin we have been given incorrect and misleading information by the minister, Senator Minchin. It is regrettable that he is not here to respond to the claims that I have made in question time and am making in this debate today. It shows a developing arrogance by this government. When ministers, in this case Senator Minchin, are directly challenged about the misleading answers that are being given to some questions, when the going gets tough, when they get into some trouble and difficulties, it is unfortunate, to say the least, that ministers will not front up and explain why misleading answers are being given to the Senate.

Most of us can recall the so-called Charter of Budget Honesty, which supposedly binds ministers of this government, that was established with such great fanfare by the Prime Minister, Mr Howard. In that Charter of Budget Honesty is a requirement that when ministers give incorrect or misleading information they should come into the Senate and correct the record. Let me go to a couple of instances where the minister, Senator Minchin, has provided incorrect and I believe misleading information.

He was asked last week about Australia’s foreign debt, the record current account deficit and the increase in interest rates, and to explain the dramatic increase in Australia’s foreign debt to a historic high. As part of his explanation—or in this case his excuse—he referred to Australia’s growth rate. He said that this was one of the causes for the increase in foreign debt to a historic level. He claimed in his answer on 9 March that it was due to the economic growth rate. This cannot be right, because the economic growth rate for the fourth quarter was amongst the lowest in the developed world: it was only 0.1 per cent.

His second excuse was to provide alleged information that the high foreign debt was the fault of the strong Australian dollar. So there were two explanations. However, in the Senate it was pointed out that this was, again, incorrect. The value of the Australian dollar, the weighted exchange rate, which is the important valuation for the current account deficit and foreign debt, was unchanged over the year 2004. I challenged the minister on his incorrect answers last week and he still held to them when they are plainly wrong. That is two instances of wrong information and wrong explanations given by Senator Minchin. He is representing the Treasurer, we understand that, and it is not always possible that he would have the most up-to-date and accurate information available. But when the going gets tough and there are a few difficult issues this government is developing an increasingly arrogant tendency to provide misleading information.

Last week, when questioned on the OECD report that showed Australia had the highest income tax burden other than Iceland, he referred to the inclusion of payroll tax. That was not right—page 26 of the OECD report shows that payroll tax is excluded from the tax burden. So, again, he gave a clearly misleading answer. The minister should get down here to the Senate and explain himself. It is not good enough. It is arrogance for a minister to give misleading answers and not front up and correct the record. It is not good enough. It is part of an attempt to distract from their poor economic record and some critical problems emerging in the Australian economy to blame everyone—the states, the unions. It is certainly not good enough to give misleading information to the Senate. (Time expired)