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Tuesday, 9 May 2000
Page: 16060

Mr LATHAM (3:54 PM) —Fancy this minister talking about hypocrisy! Fancy this minister coming to the table to talk about hypocrisy—the same minister who on 15 January put out a press release to tell the Australian consumers that he had personally directed the ACCC to put a price cap on GST practices.

Mr Hockey —That's a lie!

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—Order! Withdraw that, Minister. You will withdraw that!

Mr Hockey —I withdraw.

Mr LATHAM —We then found out in Senate estimates that there had been no directive, no letter, no attempt to put a price cap on the GST, yet this minister has the hide to come in here and talk about hypocrisy. He has more front than Mark Foy's, and he has more hide than Jessie the elephant to come into this place and tell us about hypocrisy when he stands condemned as the most hypocritical and incompetent minister on those benches.

He also wanted to give us a bit of a history lesson about consumer protection in this country. If he actually read his history books—and in this he is no more accurate than in his directives to the ACCC—he would find out that the two most significant pieces of consumer legislation in this country's history were passed by the Australian Labor Party. Until 1973 and the enactment of the Trade Practices Act, consumers in this nation had nothing. Consumers were condemned to open slather by the Menzies, Gorton and McMahon governments. Consumers had nothing until a Labor government did something in 1973. Of course, there was no further improvement in the consumer laws of this country again until a Labor government introduced the ACCC in legislation in 1995. The minister is no more accurate on the history of consumer protection than he was in his press release on 15 January.

Out of this debate and the whole shambles, the minister has put this question to the parliament: when is a direction to the ACCC not a direction? It is when it is given by the Minister for Financial Services and Regulation. He has been caught red-handed misleading the Australian people—caught red-handed misleading Australian consumers. The parliament needs to recall the context. It did not just drop from the sky, and it did not come off the beaches of the lower North Shore. This was a deliberate attempt by the minister to cover up his own incompetence in January.

The press release on 15 January came about only because of his flip-flopping on the question of the rounding up of the GST. This minister, who was the Acting Treasurer, said on 12 January that tollway operators would be prosecuted if they rounded up the number of coins that you throw in at the tollgates. This is the minister who said he would use all his power to ensure that these tollway companies could not round up the GST. On 14 January, he said the opposite then he got a call from the Prime Minister saying that rounding up has its limits—that no prices will increase by more than 10 per cent as a result of the GST. So the minister had clearly contradicted himself within the space of two days and was hugely embarrassed. He faced huge public embarrassment on 15 January. He then decided to cover his tracks. He tried to cover up this whole exercise by issuing a press release ostensibly about Qantas. But everyone knew what he was really trying to say—that is, that prices would not increase by more than 10 per cent. To cover his own tracks, he issued this press release, saying that he personally had directed the ACCC. We then found out in Senate estimates that no such thing had happened. He was a minister trying to save his bacon, but in practice he was misleading the Australian people. His whole integrity was on the line. Quite frankly, this junior minister panicked. He panicked at the level of public embarrassment about the rounding up question, and that forced him into a misleading press release on 15 January. Of course, he has been thoroughly exposed in the Senate estimates process.

I once heard Paul Keating say something that was very true about the other side of politics and that was, `Never trust a Liberal, but in particular never trust a fat Liberal because it is a sure sign he has been sitting on his backside for too long.' This is a minister who does sit on his backside. Instead of writing press releases, he should have been writing that directive to the ACCC. Instead of being big on rhetoric, he should have been big on action and done something to give Australian consumers a decent piece of protection from the 10 per cent price increases. If this parliament were handing out awards for laziness, we would be giving this minister a PhD. He would have a PhD in laziness, a slothful attitude and total ministerial incompetence. It is part of a long running pattern of incompetence from this minister. In his ministerial debut, he told us on 27 November that the Indonesian currency was the ringgit, when in fact that currency is the rupiah, so thank goodness he was not in charge of cleaning up the mess of the Asian crisis. He did not know which country was which, or which currency came from which particular nation. So that was his ministerial debut on 27 November 1998—to turn upside down the currency patterns and facts in Asia.

I noticed another piece of ministerial genius. On 31 January 2000 the Minister for Financial Services and Regulation introduced a scholarship for Australian students studying financial regulation—and do you know what he named it? He named it after Sir Otto Neimeyer, who came out here from Britain during the Great Depression. Imagine these poor students rolling up on university graduation day to get their Sir Otto Neimeyer scholarship. It would be like giving a young cricketer a Douglas Jardine cricket scholarship or giving a young footballer an Alex Murphy scholarship or giving a young politician a Ramsey McDonald political scholarship. Where do the Liberal Party get these people? Introducing a financial scholarship named after Sir Otto Neimeyer! You could not be more out of touch with the aspirations of young Australians and a decent standard of ministerial commonsense.

The incompetence from this minister has been astounding, and it reflects long-running incompetence on the implementation of the GST. In truth, everything it has touched on the GST has turned to stone. It has not taken a single trick on the implementation of this new tax. It has been fiasco after fiasco, incompetence laid on top of ministerial incompetence. And it goes to the heart of the government's chief claim to office. This is the sort of Liberal Party that echoes the ghost of Menzies. Their chief claim to office is to say, `We're the only ones who can handle the money; you can only trust the Liberal Party to handle the money.' The Australian public are now seeing how well they handle the money with the chaos of the GST and the incompetence in introducing taxation reform in this country. The government is exposing itself as unfit to handle the public purse of this nation. It is exposing itself as incompetent and unable to handle the money, and the Minister for Financial Services and Regulation is a serial offender in that regard.

The pattern of incompetence on the GST is absolutely apparent. Electorally, of course, it is a dead cat; so the government is rushing to implement this tax change as fast as possible. I suppose if this were a British parliament and it had a five-year term, it would not be implementing anything until the year 2001. But it knows it is such an electoral dead cat, such a dead item for the Australian people, that it is rushing the implementation of this substantial tax change. And who is paying the penalty for that? The penalty is being paid by Australian consumers who are being ripped off. The government has not given the directive to the ACCC, and Australian consumers are at the will of businesses that might exploit this particular tax change.

The other group that is paying the penalty is the small business sector. It is absolutely amazing to think that we have major tax changes coming in and companies changing their accounting systems without draft tax rulings available from the Australian Taxation Office. This mob could not run a chook raffle! How do you implement tax systems and tax changes without draft tax rulings from the ATO? We have small business people attending seminars and not getting clear advice. This is a government that runs tax policy on the basis of chaos theory—throw the cards up in the air, see where they fall and hope for the best—and small business is paying the ultimate price. As mentioned by the member for Wills, small business is going out backwards. A firm in Victoria that had weathered two world wars, the Great Depression and everything else that had been thrown at it could not weather the GST and have gone out the back door—closed down, end of business.

On top of that, we have more than a million businesses in this country yet to register for an ABN, and they only have until 31 May to get their application in so they can qualify for 1 July. So it is 22 days and ticking and more than a million small businesses, undoubtedly in a state of confusion and panic, wondering if they can comply with an ABN or be punished under the government's tax rules. There is fear and confusion on every front. It is a poor environment for people to undertake business in this country: GST chaos, rising interest rates, deterioration in the Commonwealth's budgetary position, uncertainty at every turn. And the government's answer is to roll out the Minister for Financial Services and Regulation who stands condemned as Sloppy Joe—sloppy in his administration, sloppy in his directives to the ACCC, sloppy in his understanding of these tax changes and very sloppy indeed in giving an honest account to this House of Representatives.