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Friday, 9 June 1989
Page: 3757

Senator MICHAEL BAUME(9.37) —I have a little more concern about the matter raised by Senator Macklin. It seems to me, as Senator Stone has said, that Senator Macklin's concerns related to the time frames, if there was an imminent-I think that was his word-possibility of a serious offence being committed. As I read the explanatory memorandum, on page 26 it specifically seems to exclude the very point that I think Senator Macklin was making. It says:

Broadly, proposed section 3e provides the Commissioner of Taxation with a discretion to disclose taxation information to an authorised law enforcement agency officer. Such disclosure is conditional on the Commissioner being satisfied that the information is relevant to the investigation of a serious offence or post-conviction confiscation and restraining order proceedings. The information may be disclosed by the Commissioner of Taxation either on his own initiative or in response to a request by an authorised law enforcement agency officer. The Commissioner cannot be compelled to reveal information. Information disclosed under section 3e may only be used for investigation purposes except where it relates to confiscation and restraining order proceedings in relation to a person convicted of a serious offence.

The second half of that would not involve any urgency in the sense that it would relate to a serious offence.

Senator Macklin —The intelligence part? For investigatory purposes?

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —As Senator Macklin intervenes, the bit that concerns him is that which says `may only be used for investigation purposes'. As I understood the investigation purposes proposition, the urgency related to that surely would be limited, if it is for investigation purposes, to a response presumably by the officer or crime agency involved. Is Senator Macklin expressing concern that the Commissioner on his own initiative would encourage investigation? I raise that because it seems to me that to add this to the Commissioner's many discretions raises serious problems indeed. It has already been alleged that the Commissioner has made threats to people in terms of coming to deals on taxation matters. It would really worry me if we were to give an added discretion to the Commissioner, to give him the power, if you like, to say, `Look, if you don't resolve this matter I will refer it to another body or to someone else and I will encourage investigation'. I think that there is a cost-benefit in this.

I am not saying that the Commissioner will naturally behave disgracefully; all I am saying is that there may well be a temptation to whoever is the Commissioner to use this as an additional piece of clout in his relationship with the taxpayer who may well feel in these circumstances that he should give way to the Tax Commissioner's request, having been pressured like this. Frankly, I am concerned about giving the Tax Commissioner additional clout in this area. I clearly take the view that in any event for a large part of this activity there is no prospect of urgency. In respect of the part where it may only be used for investigation purposes, I would need to be convinced that an investigation would be dangerously inhibited by protecting the rights and secrecy of ordinary citizens of Australia, given the assertions by Senator Macklin and admissions by the Minister that the Taxation Office has abused the trust that has been put in it in terms of secrecy and that it has done so to a considerable extent.

I recognise that no-one is perfect and that prosecutions and all sorts of other activities may well proceed, but I do think that it is unreasonable to ask us to adopt a cost-benefit approach to this matter when we have yet to see the material that Senator Macklin called for and when, in fact, it seems to me that the sense of urgency may possibly apply only to a proportion of the information that the Commissioner may be inclined to reveal to other law enforcement agencies. Unless I was absolutely convinced that the cost-benefit lay totally and overwhelmingly with this proposed change in the law, I would need far more convincing arguments than I have heard today to go along with it.