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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 2

Senator MURRAY (9:37 AM) —I speak to the motion by the Minister for Justice and Customs concerning the House of Representatives message on the Bankruptcy and Family Law Legislation Amendment Bill 2004. As I noted when the bill was debated in the Senate last month, this bill tackles some of the anti-avoidance practices that have been used to manipulate Australia’s bankruptcy laws, and the Democrats support its three main objectives, which I will recap. Firstly, the bill provides a more effective means of collecting income contributions from bankrupts who do not receive their income as a salary or wage. Secondly, it seeks to prevent the misuse of financial arrangements as a means of avoiding payments to creditors. Finally, it addresses longstanding issues concerning the interaction between family law and bankruptcy. The government has freely acknowledged and the opposition has confirmed that there is much more to be done in this area, and they are looking at ways in which those further issues can be dealt with.

In the debate last month I spoke about barristers and judges, in particular, and some disturbing statistics from the ATO and other sources concerning the way tax returns are dealt with and the way bankruptcy has been an issue of concern. On the day of the debate, the Australian newspaper had a front-page story on this issue. I was pleased, Minister—and I do not know whether you had anything to do with it—to read that a chief justice in one of the states had already made a statement to both the judiciary and the legal practitioners in the state expressing concern that his profession should be behaving in any way which indicates a failure to behave properly with respect to tax declarations, tax returns and their financial affairs in general. That is a pleasing precedent. I hope, Minister, that, with respect to the questions I asked you in the debate concerning that matter and which you said you would discuss with the Attorney-General’s Department, you will be able to make some remarks in your closing remarks on the motion.

Back in February when this bill was debated, we did support the Labor Party’s amendment to the bill. The amendment was a recommendation of the Law Council. We thought it a sensible amendment. It created a rebuttable presumption of insolvency if the alleged bankrupt makes a transfer of property and has either outstanding tax returns or failed to keep proper accounts. Unfortunately, the House has not agreed to that amendment but we do accept and acknowledge that the Attorney-General has released a discussion paper on possible further amendments to the bankruptcy law, including the option that was passed by the Senate, and that comments are due by 31 March. In line with the views of the opposition, we would hope that the turnaround once those comments are through will be rapid and that this matter can be dealt with later in the year. Since we support the main provisions of the bill and since the issue at hand is being considered by the government further, there is obviously no point in holding up the bill. The Democrats will not be insisting on the amendment.