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Wednesday, 9 May 2018
Page: 3525

Dr LEIGH (Fenner) (18:41): I would like to thank the member for Mackellar for his generosity in letting me take the jump at this moment.

Mr Falinski: Don't make me regret it!

Dr LEIGH: I'll do my best, Member for Mackellar. What is it about this government and deals around transparency laws? We saw a couple of years ago the government do a deal with the Greens political party to water down tax transparency for large private firms, raising the threshold so it took two-thirds of those private companies outside the tax transparency net. Then, in this bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Working Holiday Maker Employer Register) Bill 2017, we're seeing a dodgy backroom deal with Senator Leyonhjelm to remove the ability of the Commissioner of Taxation to make information concerning the registration of employers of working holiday-makers publicly available. Strangely, the explanatory memorandum to the bill states that removing transparency was a government commitment, but that's not what the public record acknowledges. Comments made to Fairfax media on 13 December 2017 paint quite a different story. Let me quote that article:

A spokesman for the Treasurer Scott Morrison said the bill was proposed by Senator Leyonhjelm.

"The government agreed to introduce the amendment after reaching an agreement with the senator to pass the original WYHM legislation. The government will honour its commitment," the spokesman said.

"This commitment did not extend to the successful passage of the amendment.

What's even more bemusing than the suggestion that the commitment didn't extend to the passing of the legislation is the following quote from the Treasurer's spokesman:

"The government is committed to protecting the rights of backpackers and protecting them from exploitation.

That strains credulity. As the Treasurer would be aware, under the Treasury Laws Amendment (Working Holiday Maker Reform) Bill 2016—the bill that passed parliament—employers of working holiday-makers were required to register with the tax office. Those employers were required to have proof and date of registration attached to their Australian Business Register records to enable backpackers to confirm both a potential employer's registration and the rate at which they could expect to be taxed. The Treasurer issued a media release stating backpackers could look up employers by ABN Lookup, making the register publicly available. Here is the full quote:

To generate more accurate data and boost integrity of the scheme by preventing exploitation of working holiday makers, their employers will be required to undertake a once-off registration with the Australian Taxation Office [ATO]. This simple and easy registration process will help provide valuable data on the employment of working holiday makers. Employers who do not register will be required to withhold tax at the 32.5 per cent rate. Working holiday makers will be made aware of registered employers via the publication of a list on the ABN Lookup.

You would look in vain for the list that was promised via that media statement. It just isn't there.

I and my Labor colleagues believe in transparency. That is evident in our approach to tax transparency in other spheres. But it is absolutely vital in this sphere, and that's because we've had a number of reports providing really concerning evidence about the exploitation of working holiday-makers. These are young people coming to Australia often for the first time. We have a societal responsibility to make sure that they're not ripped off. It's the decent thing to do, but, beyond that, the rip-offs of working holiday-makers undercut labour standards for local workers.

They create a situation in which those working holiday-makers who will go on and do terrific things in their home countries might develop a pretty sour sense of what Australia stands for. The last thing we want is for the future leaders of countries like Britain, Canada, Germany, Sweden or Korea to go back to their countries telling the story to their friends that Australia was the country where they got ripped off by a dodgy employer. Those dodgy employers are in the minority, thankfully, but we don't want working holiday-makers to be ripped off. Even worse than the wage rip-offs is the sexual exploitation which has happened in the past, of which cases have been documented.

It's particularly a concern because of the way in which we structure visas, in that obtaining that second-year visa is contingent on doing work in a rural or regional area. That means that some working holiday-makers are placed in a situation in which they're reluctant to report abuse because they know, if the employer doesn't sign off on their having worked in that area, they won't get that second-year visa. That creates a bargaining imbalance that doesn't exist for most workers. So it's just critical that we crack down on exploitation and the promised ABN Look-up was one useful way of doing that.

Because of Labor's commitment to transparency, I wrote to the Treasurer about this bill. I requested the government remove the Treasury Laws Amendment (Working Holiday Maker Employer Register) Bill 2017 from the Notice Paper. It had, after all, languished on the Notice Paper for some time. I urged the government to publicly indicate their support for transparency in the Working Holiday Maker scheme and have the Commissioner for Taxation make the information publicly available. Such a public commitment by the government would have removed uncertainty about the future status of the register bill. It would have ensured that information vital to the integrity of our tax system and, critically, that prevents the exploitation of workers was no longer available. No-one on either side of this House wants working holiday-makers to be exploited. But the government has brought on this bill for debate, and those of us on this side of the House are asking: what backroom deal does this relate to? Is this an attempt to have Senator Leyonhjelm rush through the remainder of the government's $80 billion tax cut for the top end of town? Is it an attempt to secure speedy passage of the Treasury Laws Amendment (Enterprise Tax Plan Base Rate Entities) Bill 2018—the government's patch-up job of its rushed first round of company tax cuts? We won't know because the government's reasons are as opaque as the register itself.

Unions and tax justice organisations have called for the tax commissioner to make public that register, as the Treasurer's media release signalled will be done. But this bill ties the hands of the tax commissioner. This bill means the tax commissioner isn't able to fulfil the intentions of the Treasurer as stated in that media release. It's not the first time the government has stymied the Australian Taxation Office. We know, of course, of the 4,000 jobs that have been cut. But it is something that I urge the government to rethink. No-one should support exploitation. We have a measure that can reduce exploitation by providing those working holiday-makers with the look-up of employers that they were promised. I and my Labor colleagues will do our best to work with the crossbench in defeating this bill—another part of the government's war on transparency and a measure which, if passed, would worsen the exploitation of an already vulnerable group of workers.