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Wednesday, 27 May 1987
Page: 3424

Mr BARRY JONES (Minister for Science)(4.23) —The Government cannot accept the amendment moved by the Opposition. We do, however, as a consolation prize, agree with the general thrust of the Opposition's amendment concerning exemptions from the customs duty refund processing fee. I mentioned in my second reading speech that exemption from the fee would be granted in circumstances in which the overpayment of duty was beyond the control of the importer. The Australian Customs Service has already given notice of the exemptions to the fee that will be set out in regulations. That notice, Australian Customs Notice No. 87/80, was issued on 14 May 1987. I will provide a copy of the notice for the information of members of the Opposition, should they wish it.

Mr Moore —And for the information of yourself.

Mr BARRY JONES —Indeed. It should be noted that there is a close correlation between the circumstances in the notice and the amendments proposed. Because the Customs Regulations already carry all of the administrative provisions concerning refunds of duty, and as these exemptions are of an administrative character, the Government is of the view that the proposed exemptions to the payment of the fee are more appropriate for the Customs Regulations.

Mr Moore —Government by regulation.

Mr BARRY JONES —We are adhering to tremendous precedents. I note that the Opposition amendment itself provides a provision to enable a prescription of other exemption circumstances by regulation. Further opportunity for debate on this matter will be available at the time of tabling the regulations.

I want to comment on some other matters raised in the debate, which I know members of the House are all agog to hear. The honourable member for Ryan (Mr Moore) and the honourable member for Dawson (Mr Braithwaite) both commented on increased Telecom Australia and Australia Post charges. The Government acknowledges that Telecom and Australia Post will need to increase charges to cover costs involved with the removal of the customs duty exemption. The extent of such charges, however, will be a matter for the respective agencies, noting that any such increases will be subject to the normal Prices Surveillance Authority investigation and recommendation.

In relation to the impost of duty on statutory authorities, it should be noted that the Inglis Committee of Review on Government High Technology Purchasing Arrangements estimated that benefits will actually exceed costs, but the Government has commissioned further analysis of the impact of the changes. The Government is, in effect, making its own agencies subject to the rules which it already imposes on the private sector and on State bodies. It is our view that the changes will lead to overall gains in economic efficiency, which will offset the adverse effects of the increased charges. The need for greater economic efficiency underlies our action in introducing the May economic statement.

In relation to the charge for refund applications, I draw honourable members' attention to the fact that importers or agents will be able to avoid the application charge simply by making sure that entries for home consumption are correct. Many applications for refund are made known in which the original overpayment was due to carelessness or a lack of professionalism by the importer or his customs agent. It was suggested that, if the fault be with the Australian Customs Service, the fee should not be charged. That will be the case, and I have already said as much in my second reading speech.

In relation to the cost recovery aspect, the $200 fee is calculated to recover costs which are presently running at an average of $194 per application. The number of applications has grown significantly in recent times to the point where there are as many as about a third the number of import transactions that the Australian Customs Service audits each year. Processing a refund application is as onerous as the audit of an original importation and has to be very rigorously controlled, as some $125m in refunds is expected to be paid out this financial year.

The matters raised in relation to the new passenger concessions appear to centre on possible delays in passenger processing. The matter is not actually relevant to the legislation before the chamber, but I just say that the new arrangements are simpler to understand and administer than the old ones. They are a major improvement on the old scheme, which allowed exploitation by the knowledgeable and relatively affluent few. We do not believe that it will slow passenger processing, as the Customs priorities at the barrier remain unchanged, the first priority being accorded to drugs and quarantine matters. It is not intended to require passengers to substantiate all purchases or identify all goods taken out with them. Customs officers will be expected to use their judgment and common sense.

In respect of the points that honourable members made about the increase in the claim limit for diesel fuel to 2,000 litres, we appreciate that there will be some inconvenience for some people. The fact is that, with higher rates of rebate now payable, claimants are applying for rebate more frequently and placing inordinate pressures on the processing system. For example, in the primary production sector applications have increased by about 30 per cent since 1984. The increase of the limit from 1,000 litres to 2,000 litres is a sensible safeguards to rationalise the processing of claims. It should be noted that initial applications will be processed for a quantity of less than 2,000 litres so that a person can be registered in the scheme. As a concession, the existing 12-month restriction on making applications will be removed in respect of purchases after the introduction of the new processing system. Regulations will be amended to achieve this change to operate concurrently with the provisions of the Bill.

The honourable member for Maranoa (Mr Ian Cameron) was concerned about the diesel fuel rebate. This is a subject dear to his heart. I recall that in an earlier debate in this chamber the honourable member wanted duty free fuel in 44-gallon drums to be available at inwards duty free shops for farmers. I can assure him that this is not going to happen, but we will examine whether such an event is feasible for purchase at outwards duty free shops providing that the passengers take the drums with them as freight. They can then enjoy them on the way back. I thank honourable members for their contributions to the debate and wish the legislation a speedy passage.

Amendment negatived.

Original question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.