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Tuesday, 31 August 1993
Page: 642

Senator FERGUSON (3.11 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for the Arts and Administrative Services (Senator McMullan), in response to a question without notice asked by Senator Ferguson this day, relating to a proposed tax on the rebate on diesel fuel.

While I will concede that the question I put today to the minister representing the Treasurer is a matter for customs, I find it absolutely amazing that he had no idea as to whether a new taxation bill was being drafted or had been drafted and put into circulation. The one thing that Senator McMullan did not say in his answer was when the decision was taken to draft this bill. I find the conclusion of question time to be a pretty unusual time for the government to announce that it is introducing a new tax measure.

  I asked when it was decided to draft this new tax bill because of what was said at estimates last Thursday night about the implementation of this new so-called administrative fee to pay for the administrative costs of the diesel fuel rebate scheme. It was established by the officers and by Senator Schacht from the program performance statements for the inland revenue that the administrative and salary expenses totalled $16.5 million in 1992-93. The inland revenue officers estimated that one-quarter to one-third of this related to the diesel fuel rebate scheme; that is, somewhere between $4.1 million and $5.5 million could be attributed to the administration of that scheme. It was also determined that, because an expected amount of just over $1 billion is to be rebated to eligible diesel fuel users, the income from this fee would be just in excess of $10 million.

  At the estimates Senator Schacht argued that not all the expenses may have been included in the program performance statements. Our advice is that any other significant expenditure would have to appear as a separate line in the budget papers. There was no other line in the budget papers. Therefore, we could assume that all administrative expenses are included in the program performance statements, especially as at that estimates committee hearing Senator Schacht specifically stated that there are no costs incurred in administering the scheme outside of the inland revenue program.

  If it were the case that this fee had to be put into place by the implementation of a new tax, I would like to know why at that time on this important matter—and, remember, it is a line in the budget, so surely some legal advice should have been sought prior to the estimates hearing; long before the hearing last Thursday when I asked these questions as to whether the fee would be constitutionally legal—Senator Schacht, in his answer to my questions and also to questions from Senator Hill, said:

. . . that it is not necessary for legislation . . .

I believe that until that time it was decided that this would be a backdoor tax that nobody knew of. The Government would be able to implement a new tax which would bring in increased revenue to the government without the introduction of any legislation. It was not until it was pointed out that the matter would be unconstitutional if it brought more revenue in to the government than was to be expended in administration and salaries, that this government then decided that it had better do something about it. It hastily sought to draft a new tax bill in order that this fee could be brought into place to bring in the expected $10 million of revenue for this government.

Senator Patterson —Scandalous.

Senator FERGUSON —I think it is scandalous and I think that the people of Australia ought to know that once again this government is introducing a new tax which will hit those people who can afford it the least—those in rural and regional Australia, those in nursing homes, the people involved in our mining industry and all those people who have been able to get a diesel fuel rebate because of the nature of their production and their industry.

  I do not know why last Thursday we were unable to get an honest answer from the Minister—namely, that legislation was to be prepared or even that he did not know. But I certainly believe that as far as the legality of a fee is concerned, the department or the minister should have received legal advice saying whether this fee could be implemented without introducing new tax legislation.