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Monday, 5 June 1989
Page: 3322


Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(3.54) —I want to intervene in this debate in part because of the attack which the Minister for Finance, Senator Walsh, made upon the Opposition, which is wrong in fact and, in many respects, quite unfounded, but also because I want to place on the record a request to the Government that might enable us to deal with this complex and important legislation in a more orderly and satisfactory way. The problems that the Parliament faces at the moment and that are now faced by the life insurance industry and potentially by some citizens simply flow back to the Government's tendency to legislate by press release.

We have here a complex set of proposals announced not by the introduction of legislation but by the issue of a statement by the Treasurer (Mr Keating), followed by about a year's delay before the details of those changes were put before the Parliament and hence before the Australian people and the industry. When the Treasurer made his statement in May 1988, it was immediately made clear by the Opposition that it had reservations about the Government's proposals. This is one of the points where Senator Walsh was inaccurate in what he said a few minutes ago. Within 48 hours of the Treasurer's statement, the honourable member for Bradfield, Mr Connolly, pointed out that, whilst the Treasurer had claimed that no-one would be worse off, in fact it was extremely likely that individual Australians would be worse off.

Mr Connolly expanded on that in a speech that he made on 26 July 1988 at a seminar run by Price Waterhouse Urwick. The speech was released and I understand that it received some publicity. Mr Connolly pointed out that the Treasurer's statement that no-one would be worse off was not accurate and that the new taxation arrangements would fall heaviest on blue-collar workers, skilled tradesmen and small business people trying to provide for their retirement income. I remind the Minister that the important point that was made by Mr Connolly at that time was under the heading `Passage of Budget Bills' when he said:

The Opposition parties have respected the right of government to pass through Parliament key elements of its Budget package. While we continue to support this principle, let there be no doubt that the Liberal and National parties would expect the appropriate superannuation legislation to meet the letter of the Treasurer's unambiguous commitment that `the new taxation measures would not reduce an individual end benefit pay-out by one cent'.

Mr Connolly went on to say:

If he is unable to meet this commitment, or make the necessary amendments to ensure that he does, the government has no right to expect that the Opposition will support automatically the easy passage of this legislation through the Parliament. We will not be a party to perpetrating a fraud on the Australian people.

It has never been the Opposition's position that this was legislation that it was not entitled to amend. After it had taken the Government a year to produce this complex package of legislation, and after it had given the Opposition a few days in which to respond to it, the Opposition moved an amendment in the House of Representatives which made it clear that it was seeking to threaten only one of the four taxation elements of this package.


Senator Walsh —That is not true; you have two amendments which would do that.


Senator CHANEY —The amendments were referred to by Senator Bishop in the question she asked Senator Walsh today. The Opposition has been seeking from the Government information and advice--

Senator Walsh interjecting-


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order, Senator Walsh!


Senator CHANEY —Senator Walsh should understand that, whilst everybody in the Senate is tired, not everyone feels able to give rein to his or her irritability in the way that Senator Walsh feels able to do. If we are to deal with this complex legislation in a satisfactory way, it will require a bit of self-control on his part. The point is, as I think eventually Senator Walsh conceded in his response to the supplementary question put to him, that the Opposition amendments do not touch the major source of finance that flows from this legislation, the tax which is imposed on the payments which are made--


Senator Walsh —Not in the short term.


Senator CHANEY —The Minister intervenes `not in the short term'. The fact is that it is quite clear that the Minister and the Government would have estimates from the Treasury and from other officials as to how this alleged $1.4 billion, which will be raised by the superannuation package, is made up. It is the clear view of the Opposition that the amendment that we are moving touches a relatively small part of the revenue raised by these Bills. It would assist the public understanding of this legislation if, before the Bills come back for debate, the Minister were to make the facts clear instead of suggesting, as he did last Friday and which resulted in a lot of newspaper publicity, that the Opposition was in some way putting under threat a whole lot of things, including the taxation treatment of lump sum payments which have already been received since this legislation was announced, the deductability of superannuation payments which have been made in excess of $1,500 by the self-employed and so on. The Minister knows that the Opposition's amendments do not touch those matters. If the Minister was being honest in the matter he would have said, `If the Opposition succeeds in amending this relatively small part of the legislation-which we do not like because we say it destroys the symmetry of the legislation-we, the Government, will as a matter of pique refuse to pass the rest of the legislation'. This will impose terrible penalties on half a million Australians and will cause great administrative inconvenience to those life insurance companies which have geared up their operations in line with the announcements made by the Government in a statement over a year ago.

The Government is approaching the Senate on the basis of putting political pressure on us not to do our duty. The Government says that the Senate should not be permitted to review this legislation or to make any suggestions because, if it does, the Government will take its bat and ball home and impose great hardship on a whole series of individuals in the community. That is an unworthy and stupid approach on the part of the Government. I hope that the Minister might reconsider it. The Opposition will insist on a proper consideration of its amendments in a cool and reasonable way so that a proper judgment on the public interest can be made and so that the public are able to make the same judgment.

I refer now to what Mr Connolly has said was an error in the amendment that was moved in the House of Representatives-an amendment which has been in the hands of the Government for some time and which, according to Senator Walsh in his interjection, he did not know about until last Thursday when the legislation was debated. This is very complex legislation. The Opposition has had amendments prepared by the parliamentary draftsman, Mr Geoff Harders. I am advised by Mr Connolly that Mr Harders's advice is that, due to the complexity of the Bills, he cannot guarantee that the amendments would withstand the most intense scrutiny and that it would take a week's work to give that sort of guarantee. I want to put on the public record the suggestion of Mr Harders that he and members of the Opposition should have access to the parliamentary draftsman who prepared the Bill and the instructing officer of the Australian Taxation Office for the purpose of preparing amendments which would ensure that the Opposition's intentions are effected.

It is notorious that under this Government tax legislation in this country has become virtually unintelligible. Tax accountants are unable to keep track of it. Lawyers find it difficult in the extreme to be sure that they are dealing with the law in any definite way because of its volume and complexity. The Government is indulging in pathetic and base games in this Parliament to ignore those very real difficulties and to make, as the Minister did last Friday, serious misrepresentations of what the Opposition was doing. I do not blame the media who misreported this issue. It is good that the Age newspaper at least managed to get behind the Minister's farrago and to report the matter accurately. I do not blame those journalists who reported it otherwise.

This legislation is beyond the comprehension of most tax lawyers and accountants. The Minister misrepresented the Opposition by suggesting that a lot of evil results would flow from the Opposition's amendment when, in fact, those evil results flow from the Government's decision, if taken, that an amendment to a relatively small part of this legislation would lead to the whole legislation being withheld-not by the Opposition but by the Government. That is what Senator Walsh withheld from the Australian people. It was not the linking of the Australian Democrats with the Opposition that would have this effect; it was the Government's pique in withholding this legislation. This legislation properly should be stood over so that a little more light and a little less heat can be placed on it.

Retirement incomes are of fundamental importance to everybody in Australia. There is intense interest in the community, not just among those who are nearly retired but also among those who are looking at a lifetime of work ahead of them, to know what the situation is with respect to their eventual retirement benefits. This Government is making superannuation somewhat less attractive by the additional revenue that it is taking out of the system and the additional taxes that it is imposing. It is doing this in a way which is proving to be complex and confusing for the industry and for superannuants. It is now expecting the Parliament to deal with those matters in a peremptory way and is then criticising the Opposition for the difficulties we face. It is a pathetic failure of responsibility on the part of the Government to legislate properly and to give this Parliament a chance to do its duty.

I think Senator Walsh's demeanour during Question Time and during the debate this afternoon is an indication that it is not a matter of suggesting that Senator Bishop should not be dealing with this legislation on behalf of the Opposition. It is time that someone with a slightly calmer temperament, and a greater sense of the public interest than Senator Walsh appears to have today, was put in charge of this legislation. I never thought I would invite Senator Bolkus to assume these responsibilities, but I ask him to do so, since he is the Minister at the table, so that a Minister who is capable of being a little more rational and sensible in these matters can look after them.

We have a large legislative program. Senator Walsh, by his performance, has again led us to take more time than any of us would have wished to go through the procedure of having this legislation stood over for a time so that it can be dealt with properly. I formally repeat my request that, rather than engage in the sort of nonsense that we have seen in this chamber, the Minister should make available--


Senator Bolkus —I will pass that on.


Senator CHANEY —The Minister at the table indicates that he will pass on that request that the Government make available both the relevant Taxation officers and the parliamentary draftsman so that these matters can be looked at properly. I would also ask the Government, in the interest of having an informed debate, to advise the Parliament of the information which it has consistently refused to provide; that is, how the $1.4 billion is made up. We believe that a tiny proportion of that will be affected-somewhere between $20m and $120m, a large sum of money but very small in comparison to the $1.4 billion total-by the measures which the Opposition is supporting and for which, for a variety of reasons, we have gained the support of the Australian Democrats. I make those requests and I hope that we will get a sensible response from the Government on both of them.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Walsh's) be agreed to.