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Wednesday, 17 April 1985
Page: 1247

Mr SPENDER(11.28) —The comments by the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) have provoked me to say something about the Taxation (Unpaid Company Tax) Assessment Amendment Bill l985, whereas I had intended to sit and let others speak on it. The Minister began with what might be said to be the direct, habitual, characteristic and oft repeated misrepresentation that the Opposition is a group of people who support and defend tax avoiders. We have never done so. We have said again and again that we have not done so. The best proof is to be found in the fact that this Government, which came to power on a surge of promise back in l983 and which crawled back into power in the last election, has not been able to put before this Parliament one general anti-avoidance measure. The reason-I have said it previously and it has been acknowledged by the Government-why not one single general anti-avoidance measure has been put before this Parliament is very simple. It is that it was done under the previous Treasurer. Nothing remained to be done save selectively to try to deal retrospectively with certain practices.

One does not have to defend the practice, or take a view as to whether it is socially desirable or undesirable, to conclude that retrospective legislation is dangerous. It is dangerous to the fabric not only of the tax system but also of our whole society, which is built, although some of the Government members seem not to realise it, on views as to certainty of the law. Whether one likes the law or not, one should be able to arrange and organise one's affairs and to act in accordance with the law as it exists.

It is the merest sophistry for the Minister for Health to come in here and talk about a mandate given by the people to the Australian Labor Party, which never really explained what it was seeking to do. The Minister used that very evocative term 'bottom of the harbour'. We have heard it repeated time and again. It is the new McCarthyist smear. No matter what happened, no matter what kind of transactions were entered into, they were termed bottom of the harbour deals so as to conjure up in the mind of the electorate the vision of groups of people surreptitiously destroying tax records in the middle of the night, shredding them and sending them to the bottom of the harbour, and engaging in activities which are illegal. They are classed as illegal because the records were destroyed.

Nobody has any sympathy with or any brief for those people who engage in fraudulent activities. If one evades tax, if one engages in fraudulent activities, one must be subject of the fullest rigor of the law. It is a quite different matter-this is always blurred by Government speakers-if, for whatever reason, one has chosen to take advantage of the law. One does not have to commend such action, as I have said, but it is a quite different proposition. Here again for the fifth time, as the honourable member for Bennelong (Mr Howard) has pointed out, this same set of measures has come before this House. It will suffer the same fate in another place, and so it should.

The Minister for Health spoke about the so-called innocence clause as though it was perfectly impossible for any of the people involved in these schemes to be innocent of any intention deliberately to defraud the revenue. I should have thought that most people of common sense and decency and with a sense of fairness would distinguish very clearly between two separate cases. The first case is that of a person who fraudulently sets out to defeat the revenue and deliberately to strip a company of assets so that it is not able to pay its taxes and who knows what is involved. The second case is that of a person in an entirely different situation. Again, one does not have to moralise about these matters because we can moralise about many issues in this House. I refer to the case of a person who is unaware of what is happening and believes that what is being done is being done honestly and in accordance with the law as it stands. That is really the effect of the so-called innocence clause.

I noted without surprise, however, that the Minister for Health said nothing about tax reform. Recently the Government has been somewhat quiet on the subject of tax reform. When it was put to the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke)-I believe it was during a talk-back program on a radio station in Perth-that a tax summit might be a good idea, like Senator Gareth Evans he said in an off-hand manner that it sounded like a good idea at the time. So a tax summit became part of the mystique of the electoral campaign.

Mr Griffiths —But it is a good idea.

Mr SPENDER —I will come to that. As the Prime Minister had one good public relations exercise in the National Economic Summit Conference, he thought he would have another. What do we have? We have the Prime Minister going distinctly cold on the whole subject. We find that the three factions are split. Representations are being made by members of the different factions who are putting up different views. That is, of course, entirely understandable because what we are looking at is not the Australian Labor Party; it is three factions entrenched within it, who combine and deal with each other as separate political entities.

I hope that the Treasurer (Mr Keating) will be able to come up with a tax reform proposal which is sensible and which helps the Australian people. We all hope that that will take place, but the prospects appear to get smaller and smaller as the Prime Minister's diminishing will to face up to the difficulties of tax reform becomes only too apparent. We on this side of the House have seen all the evidence of the Prime Minister's diminishing will to face difficulties of any kind, just as those who sit behind him know how unwilling he is to face up to unpalatable decisions. He should understand that the good times are past and the times ahead are hard and they are getting harder as this Government lurches its way towards political oblivion.

Question put:

That the Bill be now read a second time.