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Wednesday, 31 May 2000
Page: 16705


Mr SLIPPER (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration) (4:35 PM) —I would like to thank all participants in this debate for their contribution. The Petroleum Excise Amendment (Measures to Address Evasion) Bill 2000 improves the government's ability to address excise evasion occurring through fuel substitution. The bill facilitates prosecutions for fuel substitution offences by removing some technical difficulties with the legislation and allowing the use of evidentiary certificates in prosecutions. The bill will also amend the definition of `fuel' to cover a broader range of imported products and requires persons dealing in these products to meet the record keeping provision of the act.

Existing provisions in the Excise Act 1901 allow changes to the excise tariff to be made by gazetting a proposal or tabling a proposal in parliament. Over time, specific tariff items have been included in a variety of legislation, and so changes to these tariff items require changes to the legislation. This bill removes the specific legislative references so that tariff changes can be quickly effected by gazettal or proposal. The initiatives contained in this bill are part of the government's ongoing strategy against excise evasion by fuel substitution. The opposition has indicated that it does not oppose the passage of this bill through the parliament, but it has moved a second reading amendment, which the government does not accept and which we reject, seeking to criticise the government in certain areas.

The contribution of the honourable member for Wills was regrettably not a positive contribution. It was a very negative speech, as we have become accustomed to hearing from the honourable member for Wills in this place. He criticised the Australian Taxation Office for allegedly ceasing random testing of fuel as a means of attacking fuel substitution. This legislation proposes a systemic response to the problem by amending tariff and other administrative measures and making them more effective than chasing individual service stations. There has been in the past a difficulty experienced by Customs in proving offences due to the need to track fuel back to its source. It indicated that random testing would not be fully effective. The current amendments will alleviate evidentiary problems, and random testing will become a viable option to address fuel substitution. The honourable member for Wills also mentioned toluene. The fact is that claims that toluene and toluol are the same product are not correct. The first specific information detailing misuse of a tanker of imported toluene was raised with the Australian Taxation Office in January 2000. The amendments to the customs tariff effective 10 March 2000 address this problem. Even if all the toluene imported after 15 November 1999 was substituted—and it was not—the maximum revenue lost would have been less than $10 million.

Labor members also referred to trucks purchased and fitted out by Customs and claimed that the government should come clean on this issue. There were seven trucks leased by the Australian Customs Service, and they were transferred to the Australian Taxation Office in July 1999. Five trucks are still available for use in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. The truck in Darwin was returned as there were no staff there to use it. The additional truck in Sydney was returned as surplus to current requirements, and cost savings were made by returning it prior to the expiry of the lease. The honourable member for Wills also mentioned that paint manufacturers were seeking assurance that the changes made in this bill would not see paint manufacturers paying increased rates for toluene. It was interesting to see that the honourable member for Wills himself pointed out that in his view this would not be the case. I just want to reassure paint manufacturers that this bill does not in any way increase excise rates, including rates for petroleum products legitimately used as something other than fuel—for example, solvents used by the paint industry.

The honourable member for Greenway referred to the number of tests done by the Australian Taxation Office in comparison with the number done by Customs. I think he said that there have been 42 tests by the tax office, with eight positive results, and that Customs had done over 500, with 50 positive results. The evidence demonstrates that the legislation can be improved to allow prosecutions to be commenced when a positive test is found, and the bill currently being debated in the chamber does precisely that. It removes some constraints, and that will assist in the ability to obtain convictions. It is in the interests of the parliament to pass this legislation expeditiously.

The Labor Party has developed a practice of moving pious amendments to legislation which is not being opposed by the opposition. In this case, the honourable member for Wills has moved a second reading amendment which seeks to condemn the government `for its inaction on the dangerous practice of fuel substitution and, in particular, for allowing the Australian Taxation Office to cease random testing of fuel'. I have mentioned the situation as far as the random testing of fuel goes and how this legislation will very much improve the situation. The Labor Party has comprehensively failed since 1993, when it was in office, to bring about an acceptable situation. I must say that under the Labor Party there has not been one completed prosecution, and we believe that this legislation will be very much more effective. We reject any suggestion that there has indeed been delay in this particular matter, and we believe that the government's approach and the legislation before the chamber are a timely and appropriate response to a problem which has arisen. On that basis, I am very pleased to commend the bill to the House.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be omitted (Mr Kelvin Thomson's amendment) stand part of the question.