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Thursday, 23 August 2001
Page: 30160

Mr COSTELLO (Treasurer) (3:49 PM) —Let me begin my response to the censure motion by saying the Labor Party comes in here and says it has written evidence that a scam has been entered into, and it refuses to produce the evidence. The record will show I just asked the Deputy Leader of the Opposition to table the document that he was reading from, which allegedly proved a scam and which was worthy of a censure of two ministers in this parliament, and he refused to table the document. I myself would have thought that, if the case were that he had really hot evidence and if he were really worried about a scam that had been entered into, he would be tabling the document for the world to see—certainly tabling the document for the press to see, certainly tabling the document for the Australian Taxation Office to see, and I would be interested in it myself. But doesn't it strike the members of this House as passing strange that you should walk in here claiming that you have uncovered a scam in a written document which you then refuse to table, refuse to make public? I would have thought that to give yourself a shred of credibility that would have been the first thing that you would have done.

The second thing that you would have done—and I think we can dispose of the argument very quickly and then we can go on to what is really behind this censure—is, if you were alleging that a scam arrangement had been entered into to claim input tax credits, you would have shown that input tax credits were claimed and paid. That would have been the most obvious thing. If the scam is that somebody claimed an input tax credit when they were not entitled to do so, you would come in here and you would say the input tax credit was claimed on a BAS of such and such a time and that such and such an amount was paid, because if it was not claimed or if it was not paid there is no scam. But I would have thought that, you having alleged that there was a scam and a fraud, the first thing you would do is come in and say, `There is the claim. There is the money that was paid,' because if no money is paid there can be no fraud.

The fact that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition makes the allegation counts for nothing in this House—everybody knows that. We have a false allegation probably on a daily basis, and I will come in a moment to why we have this allegation today. The claim is that a scam arrangement was entered into by the Queensland Liberal Party to obtain GST input tax credits. Let me explain, for the benefit of those who may not know how the system works, that if you buy goods and services you pay GST. If you want to claim back an input tax credit you must put in a return, claim your input tax credit and you will receive a cheque. Presumably with the Groom FEC—and I would not know; I do not do the return for the Groom FEC, and I know it would come as a great shock to the Minister for Small Business that I have no inclination to start doing the GST returns of the Groom FEC—if there was a fraud, the first thing one would do is that one would have their return which claimed these input tax credits, because unless you have done that you have not shown that they actually received anything that they should not have, because you have not shown that they received anything. By the way, even if you did that, you would not have shown that they had not received anything that they were not entitled to. So that would be the first step in showing that they had received something. I do not do the returns for the Liberal Party state branch, nor of course am I aware of or responsible for its returns.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition's proposition is this: if I attend a lunch where somebody has not complied with their obligations, I am liable. If I walk into a milk bar and I buy a pie, and that milk bar, as it turns out, has not properly accounted for GST or, worse, if it is engaged in a scam, I am complicit. Or if I walk into a restaurant and I buy a meal, and the restaurant does not put in its return or it is involved in some scam, I am complicit. And the same goes for him—presumably, he is complicit every time he walks into a milk bar or a restaurant if the person, unbeknown to him, does not put in a return. That is the proposition that was put here.

You have only got to state the proposition to realise how ridiculous it is. First of all, he does not prove that the Groom FEC received anything. I would not know whether they had; I am not responsible for their returns. But if I was going to get up here and say there was a scam by the Groom FEC, step 1, I would say they received something. Then I would prove that they were not entitled to receive it. Then I would show that it was somehow counselled or procured by the Minister for Small Business. And then, if I wanted to lay this at the door of the Treasurer, I would say it was counselled or procured by the Treasurer. That was the allegation, that this had somehow been counselled or procured by me or by the Minister for Small Business. But, of course, he does not show any of that.

I said in question time earlier today that I was aware that political parties in the transition to GST had made errors in their returns. Not so, said the member for Hotham—never been done by the Labor Party. So I will table a document. I will table the Herald Sun of 22 March 2001. The article says:

Labor has been caught dodging the GST on a swanky fundraising dinner via a loophole it had just pledged to close. It was revealed yesterday Premier Steve Bracks had used a tax avoidance tactic—

Listen to this—

that Labor's federal deputy leader had said was outrageous.

So he was running around saying that this tax tactic was outrageous while it was being engaged in by the Premier of Victoria. The article goes on:

Shadow Treasurer Simon Crean had accused the Liberal Party of dodging tax by disguising most of the ticket price to a dinner as a donation. But it has emerged Labor used the same aggressive interpretation of tax laws for a Bracks fundraising dinner in December of last year. The embarrassing discovery has undermined Labor's pledge to shun shady fundraising tactics.

According to the logic of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, that is a fraud which should have been reported to the Federal Police and the Australian Taxation Office. He, as the deputy leader of the party, is complicit in it; therefore, he should be sacked.

Mr Beazley —It's not a fraud.

Mr COSTELLO —It is not a fraud? Hang on! Labor is, according to this, trying to dodge its GST. That is not a fraud—oh no. But if the Groom FEC has made an error in relation to GST, that is a fraud. Is that right? Not that you can show that the Groom FEC actually received any input tax credits, not that you can show that it actually has not complied. No. But it is the Groom FEC— ipso facto, it is a fraud. Labor is in the clear, and the Minister for Small Business ought to be condemned.

Let us now come to why this motion is being moved today. There are two reasons. One is that for the last 3½ years we were going to have roll-back—roll-back was going to be the policy of the Australian Labor Party. When roll-back died, the Australian Labor Party said, no, health was going to be its big issue. All of this week we have had a concerted question time on health. Even today, the MPI was going to be on health, because health, health, health is the Labor Party's issue—so they said. But, having been humiliated yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition decides to bring forward the diversion. It is no doubt something that has been sitting in the back pocket probably, I would say, waiting for the campaign. Apparently these are events which happened last year, so this has been in the back pocket waiting for the campaign and is brought out today. Why? Because not only can they now not mention roll-back, not only can they now not mention `noodle nation', but now they cannot mention health. So they pull a counterattack out of the back pocket, get the old deputy leader down here, get him to try and put as much dirt on as many people as possible, rely on the newspapers to print some of it because it has been said under privilege and then try and divert the whole week off their health attack.

The second reason why this is pulled out of the back pocket today and run by the deputy leader is his utter humiliation on Tuesday of this week. It appears that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has given up asking any questions about the economy, having falsely claimed the Australian economy would be in recession—

Mr Crean —When did I say that? That is a lie!

Mr COSTELLO —When the national accounts came out and they showed Australia's quarter had been the strongest in 2001 of any of the industrialised countries of the world, he gave up asking questions. In fact, I can pinpoint precisely the day when he stopped asking questions on the economy: it was the day of the national accounts which showed the Australian economy for the March quarter had the strongest growth—

Mr Crean —That is a lie!

Mr COSTELLO —in relation to all the industrial nations.

Mr ACTING SPEAKER —The Treasurer will resume his seat. I have extended a great deal of understanding to the deputy leader, but I am getting tired of his constant claims that it is a lie. I would be obliged if he would withdraw.

Mr Crean —No, I will not withdraw. I urge you to check Speaker Andrew's rules—

Mr COSTELLO —This is my time.

Mr Crean —Of course it is your time! It is my time because I am being asked to withdraw in circumstances in which you are just peddling lies.

Mr ACTING SPEAKER —I have asked the deputy leader to withdraw. I do not really want him to have an early mark, but if he does not withdraw I will have no alternative because he is defying the chair.

Mr Crean —Mr Acting Speaker, this is a very significant issue you are raising with me, because Speaker Andrew has said that, whilst he does not like it, he has to allow it to happen. Why? Because the Prime Minister has said it from the dispatch box. If you are going to allow the Prime Minister of the country to accuse us of a lie—

Mr ACTING SPEAKER —Resume your seat! I accept the argument made by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. However, I encourage every member of this House to adopt a practice of not only not calling people liars but also not claiming that they are lying or saying that it is a lie.

Mr COSTELLO —As I said, I can pinpoint precisely when the Deputy Leader of the Opposition lost his nerve and stopped asking questions about the economy in this House. It was when the March quarter national accounts came out, which showed that in quarter 1 of 2001 Australia had the strongest growth of any of the major countries of the industrialised world. He stopped asking questions. When the press reported this on Tuesday, so humiliated was he that he demanded the opportunity to come back in with something that has been in the back pocket, no doubt since last year, and to run this totally spurious and false allegation against me.

The reason we are here on this censure today is not that the Labor Party suddenly found out about a Groom fundraiser last year; it is not that the Labor Party came into the possession of a document today; it is not that they actually want to table the document, because when I gave them the opportunity they refused. The reason why we are having a censure today is that we cannot discuss roll-back, we cannot discuss noodle nation and we cannot discuss health. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition has been humiliated because he cannot ask a question on the economy, so he pulls out the Groom FEC, if you please, from last year. So important was this matter, so important was it to censure two ministers in relation to this matter, that they have been sitting on it for only eight or 10 months! So important!

Lest we actually get any of this documentary evidence, he refuses to table it. I have never seen someone came into this House and say, `Here is a document that proves a fraud,' but when they are asked to table it, they refuse to do so. You would want to have this in the gallery; you would want to have it down at the tax office; you would want to be able to prove your case. In relation to the case, what is the case? The case is that the Groom FEC somehow, in contradiction of the taxation act, received input tax credits when that was not lawfully available to them under the legislation. But he does not prove that they actually applied for them nor that they received them—one problem in establishing a forgery.

Presumably the shadow Attorney-General is going to get up next and presumably he is going to show, `This was the return and this was what was paid, which was not in accordance with the law, and therefore fraudulent.' Mr Acting Speaker, can I have an extension of five minutes? (Extension of time granted) First of all, not having proved that any claim was made; secondly, not having proved that any claim was paid; thirdly, not having proved that it was not entitled to under the law; fourthly, not having proved that I had any responsibility; fifthly, not having proved that there was any involvement of me either counselling or procuring, this censure falls flat on its face, except as a diversionary tactic for a Labor Party which now can speak not of any policy. It now has no policy that it can speak of. He finished up by saying: `Well, if you want us to stamp this out and to enforce the law, give us the right to administer the GST.' That is how he finished!

Mr Sawford —Mr Acting Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I want to point out that the time clock has eight minutes to go when it should in fact be four minutes.

Mr ACTING SPEAKER —My clock is showing six minutes and 26 seconds.

Opposition members interjecting—

Mr ACTING SPEAKER —Order! Perhaps everybody would like to know that an extension of time is not moved for a specific period of time. The Leader of the House, who moved the motion, moved that the Treasurer's time be extended. The motion provides inherently that that is for half the time of the original speech. That is 15 minutes, so in that case the time is correct. The Treasurer has the call, and no more trivial points of order.

Mr COSTELLO —When I made the offer, saying to him that, if he thinks that there is anything untoward from the Groom FEC or, indeed, if he thinks there is anything untoward from the Liberal Party state division in Queensland, I would be happy to receive any information and I would be happy to pass it on to the Australian Taxation Office, he said that he could not do that because the only way that this can be fixed is if he gets into government and has the right to administer the law—in other words, the right to administer the GST. Haven't we come a long way now? The Australian Labor Party, which says, `There should be no GST; it should be rolled back,' now demands the right to administer the GST. When the perfectly reasonable offer is put to him that, if there is anything untoward, give us the evidence and we will pass it on to the Australian Taxation Office, he refuses to do so. He refuses to give any information to us for the enforceability of the law.

I want to make it entirely clear that the government is responsible for policy and for legislation in relation to taxation matters and the Australian Taxation Commissioner is responsible for enforcement. That has always been the case. There is a reason behind that. The reason why you have an independent statutory officer responsible for enforcing the law is so that no person who holds ministerial office and no person who is in the parliament is able to influence the Commissioner of Taxation in the enforcement of the law. No person has the capacity to do it: I do not have the capacity to do it; the Minister for Small Business does not have the capacity to do it; the Prime Minister does not have the capacity to do it. Anybody who knew the first principle of Australian taxation law would know that if the Groom FEC has contravened a law then the Australian Taxation Commissioner, free of any influence, has the capacity to enforce that law.

What is more, the Commissioner of Taxation is protected from dismissal by a protection mechanism which is almost akin to a High Court judge. The Commissioner of Taxation can only be removed from his office by proven misbehaviour through a motion of both houses of parliament. And that is as it should be, so that the Commissioner of Taxation can be sure that he has tenure of office, unless proven misbehaviour is found by the houses of parliament, to enforce a law without fear or favour. The Commissioner of Taxation has the power to enforce it against the Groom FEC; he has the power to enforce it against the Queensland Liberal Party; he has had the power to enforce it against the federal Liberal Party; he has the power to enforce it against me in respect of my own taxation obligations; and he has the power to enforce it against the Minister for Small Business in respect of his taxation obligations.

The suggestion which is coming through here with no evidence whatsoever—the slimy little smear that is being put down here by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition—is that somehow I was able to engage in some preferential treatment for the Groom FEC or the Queensland Liberal branch. That is false; absolutely false. I have never obtained any preferential treatment for any Groom FEC or for the Queensland Liberal branch or for the federal Liberal Party. I have never sought to do so and I never would.

If you are going to come into this parliament and you are going to make an allegation like that, you should come in with a shred of evidence. You ought to come in with a case: you ought to have the input tax credit claim; you ought to be able to prove that they did not pay tax; you ought to be able to prove that they were liable to pay tax. But you do none of those things, because you are not really interested in this motion at all. What you are interested in is making sure the parliament gets up tonight without discussing health. That is what the Labor Party is really interested in. Earlier in the week they could not ask enough questions about health, yet on the final day of the sitting it is, `Don't mention health,' just as they cannot mention roll-back, just as they cannot mention `noodle nation'. This is an opposition that now has no policy and it is moving around with the smear and the slur trying to slide to an election before anybody can ask them what they would actually do if they governed this country, because it is frightening to know what they would do if they ever governed this country. We would be right back in the old days.

There is not a speck of evidence in relation to this matter. The Groom FEC is obliged to follow the tax law, like the Queensland division and like the Liberal Party of Australia. This government did not seek to influence the Commissioner of Taxation. No proof has been given. This is a fraudulent censure and it ought to be shown the contempt that it deserves.

Mr ACTING SPEAKER —The member for Blaxland may think that he sits so far back that he cannot be seen or heard. He can, and he is warned.