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Monday, 27 September 1993
Page: 1183

Senator VANSTONE (5.35 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

This document is one that I have had a hand in writing, as have Senator McKiernan and Senator Chris Evans, who are sitting opposite; Senator Ellison, who is sitting behind me; and Senator O'Chee. The remarks I wish to make relate to that report and, in particular, to the response to that report thus far by the current discredited Treasurer (Mr Dawkins). It is important to address this report tonight at some length because the response by the government is very instructive for us as to the way the government has responded to this Senate report, obviously, and as to the way it thinks about the Senate as a whole. In particular, it is very instructive as to the mind-set, the thinking and the intellectual capacity of the Treasurer.

  The night that this report was released the Treasurer appeared on a national radio program on the ABC, PM, saying that he had gone back and asked his legal advisers to see where risk might exist and whether there was anything we could do to minimise that risk. What kind of a disgrace is that? There had been a constitutional cloud of doubt over this bill from almost the minute that it was presented. The government had every opportunity to get every bit of advice it wanted; it had received advice; it had the benefit of the legal advice that the committee had received; and the most pathetic response we got from this Treasurer was, `Well, I'll go and get some advice on it'. Of course, we know what happened. Overnight, the advice clearly was to split the bills. Nonetheless, that is an indication of how recalcitrant and reluctant this Treasurer is to listen to what he is told—

Senator Campbell —Petulant.

Senator VANSTONE —As was interjected by Senator Campbell, it is an indication of how petulant this Treasurer is. He said that the committee had given no explanation as to what the risk was or where it lay in the bill. What the committee did was to answer the questions it was given by the Senate. There were two reasons why a lot of detail was not spelt out. One was that it would be obvious to blind Freddy with a mask on that if the answer to the question, `Does this bill impose taxation?' was `Yes', or, `There is a significant risk that it does', everything else followed. Someone doing constitutional law I—probably legal studies in year 12—would understand the reasoning and the relationship between section 55 and section 53, the powers of the Senate and the way in which a bill had to be drafted.

  As I said, blind Freddy with a mask on could see that if this report said there was a real risk which was substantial, the High Court would hold that this bill did impose tax and the rest followed, namely, because it dealt with a number of subjects of taxation, it would be in contravention of section 55. That did not need to be spelt out to the most inarticulate, ill-informed person that I have come across, so why the Treasurer felt the committee should point it out, I do not know.

  The following day the Treasurer went on to say that these bills would be split. He made some other remarks and it is those remarks that I particularly want to spend some time addressing. He was asked by a journalist whether he felt somewhat betrayed by the Labor senators in this situation. I think that question goes to the heart of what Senate committees are all about and the Treasurer's response goes to the heart of how he, and probably other members of this government, think Senate committees should behave. The question was:

Do you feel somewhat betrayed by Labor senators in this situation?

The inference being that Labor senators on the other side of the chamber will always do in committees as they are instructed; that they have no regard for the truth; no regard for what the proper story is that should be put before parliament; and, if there is any difficulty created in a report, then they will not sign that report and their job is simply to sign reports that make it easy for the Treasurer. That was the inference to be drawn from the question and, of course, it was a very well placed question because the response was:

I could not, in polite language, describe how I feel about the members of that Committee, including those from my own party.

So the Treasurer is saying that the members of his party who were on this committee should have ignored the advice that they were given; ignored the evidence that was put before the committee; ignored the real risk, if this bill was left in its current form, that it would later go to the High Court, be challenged and be held to be invalid; ignored the consequences for millions of consumers around Australia who are already, because of this Treasurer's ineptitude, paying higher prices for goods that they need not pay because some of these taxes might not be passed; and ignored what was described by one witness as potentially Australia's greatest fiscal nightmare, in that taxes would have been paid and have failed to have been collected under an invalid law, given that there are exemptions and reductions included.

  The Treasurer is saying that his colleagues on the opposite side of the chamber should simply ignore Australia's greatest potential fiscal nightmare. He is saying that they should put out a report which says, `If the Treasurer wants to have a go at this, let him have a go. We will remain silent about the things we know'. There can be no greater insult to members of parliament—be they Labor, Democrat, Liberal, Independent or Green—than to suggest that they will come into this place and simply, on all occasions, sing the tune of their respective parties, whatever the risk to the nation.

  But that is apparently what this Treasurer expects. This petulant, failed Treasurer, who chose to package the bill in this way, somehow believes that a Senate committee should simply endorse what a bill says and that it has no business in questioning his choice to package the bill in this way. The Treasurer is not that informed. He went on to say that only one sentence in the report includes any sense of wisdom. And I thought Senator McMullan was one of the most condescending people I have ever met!

  Mr Dawkins said, `Only one sentence in the report includes any sense of wisdom'. The Treasurer can glean nothing out of the report—all the work that has been done, all the evidence that has been given by people who are both well-intentioned and well-informed. Some of them came to opinions that were different from others. Nonetheless, all this work had been done and all the Treasurer could say was, `Only one sentence includes any sense of wisdom'.

  The Treasurer then went on to say that the rest of the committee report is just speculation and simply the opinion of a `collection of people'—obviously the terminology is chosen to denigrate the committee in some way—`who are, after all, just politicians'. We are all politicians. The Treasurer seems to miss the point that he is one too. He said, `They are not High Court judges and most of them are not even lawyers'. Senator Chris Evans, you can help me out by a nod or a wink as to whether your profession—

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator West)—Order! Senator Vanstone, address your remarks through the chair.

Senator VANSTONE —Senator Chris Evans, if he were listening—which I am sure he is—could help me by indicating whether his profession before coming into this place was one which required legal qualifications.

Senator Chris Evans —Certainly not.

Senator VANSTONE —The Treasurer is still wrong, because he says that most of the committee members are not even lawyers. In fact, half the members of this committee have legal qualifications: Senator O'Chee, Senator Ellison, Senator Cooney and me. I am not sure about—

Senator O'Chee —Senator Spindler has legal qualifications.

Senator VANSTONE —Senator Spindler also has legal qualifications. That is a majority of members. That is how ill-informed this man is. He rattled off something about committee members being incompetent and having no knowledge of law. He said that most of the members of the committee are not even lawyers. However, when we do a quick count, we find that most of them are. So I do not know where this man is coming from. I wonder whether I should bother reading anything else that he has said.

  Mr Dawkins said one thing which caused amusement in the supermarkets. Pretty soon there will be a slow clap in the supermarkets like the one which can be heard at artistic performances. When a performance is running late, there is a slow clap from the audience, demanding that something happen. This will happen to Treasurer Dawkins. In response to a question from Paul Lyneham, he referred to the times when it becomes necessary for him to leave Fremantle. Poor petal, having to leave Fremantle! He chose this job and he can choose to leave it any time he likes. It is not necessary for him to come here. One might argue that we would all be better off if he did not.

  He said that, when it becomes necessary for him to get on a plane and come to Canberra, the prospect of retirement does well in his mind. Let him give the job away. Are we all meant to be lying in the aisles and saying, `Change the Senate committee report because it is all too frustrating for a Treasurer who messed it up in the first place'? Is that what we are meant to do? Oh, no! Mr Dawkins is thinking of retiring. Let us give it away. Let us cause no more difficulty. Let us not look at the constitutionality of this bill. Let us ignore our responsibilities in this chamber to get things right in the first place.

  Let us say, `If Mr Dawkins wants to pass this, whacko! Let's pass it and give it a run. Let's give it a burl. Let's run it through the High Court. Let's run this high risk and face this constitutional and fiscal uncertainty and fiscal nightmare; because otherwise Mr Dawkins might have had too much and will want to give it away'. It is obviously a ludicrous proposition.

  A number of other points need to be made with respect to Mr Dawkins. One colleague opposite, Senator McKiernan, described him as aloof. I do not disagree with that. It clearly indicates that he is somewhat out of touch. In fact, Senator McKiernan was very helpful when he said:

I am not surprised at all by his comments and reaction. The guy is an elitist and he is aloof.

I do not think being elitist is necessarily a bad thing. People are entitled to choose their course in life. But that brings us back to the Treasurer's remarks about senators in this committee not being able to deal with more than one matter at a time; in particular, it tells us something about this Treasurer. He behaves badly under pressure. He feels under pressure; he feels responsible—which is quite a good thing, because he is. When he gets to a particular stress point, he wants to give it all away. But when he is in that position he does something else which is particularly unattractive. When the blowtorch is applied to him, instead of accepting responsibility and trying to fix the problem, he has a go at his mates.

  I would have thought that the concept of mateship, as it has developed in Australia generally, but more particularly in the Labor Party, means that people are accepted with their good and bad points and mates are not bucketed simply because they have a different view. There are two people who sit in this chamber—I do not know whether they regard themselves as mates of Mr Dawkins; I do not understand the factional arrangements within the Labor Party to the extent that I could comment on that—who are members of his party. Because they have not done his bidding, whistled to his tune and done exactly as he wanted, he says that there is no way he can describe what he feels about them in terms that could be printed.

  On one occasion the Treasurer said of senators, `What's wrong with those people? Can't they deal with more than one matter at one time?'. He even described senators as being feeble-minded people—totally bypassing the point. He insulted us by calling us feeble-minded; it was he, after all, who packaged the bill in an unconstitutional form, or at least in a form that runs a high risk of being considered unconstitutional. He said that we are feeble-minded people who cannot consider a number of issues at one time.

  He completely bypassed the very important point that what we do in this chamber with respect to bills and how we deal with them—that is, whether we can introduce them and the way in which we might amend them—is quite clearly indicated to us by the constitution. We probably all appreciate that the way that we deal with them if we get it wrong is a matter between the houses. But what is important is that section 55 of the constitution, as it relates to this matter, makes it quite clear that when parliament wants to pass a bill imposing taxation, that bill should deal with only one instance of taxation.

  So the Senate's desire to have this matter investigated by the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs and reported back has nothing to do with the difficulty of considering one, two, three, four, five or six matters at one time; it quite simply has everything to do with a desire to ascertain whether the legislation that we are dealing with would, if passed, be in conformity with the constitution.

  At one stage, Mr Dawkins indicated that he thought the Senate inquiry had been a big waste of time and money. It cannot be a waste of time and money for the Senate to ascertain whether legislation it is dealing with would, if passed, be held to be valid or invalid. I would have thought that might be one of the primary things we would be required to look at.

  Or is Mr Dawkins suggesting that we should sit here and willy-nilly pass things irrespective of what the constitutional restraints might be and without looking back to see the reasons why those restraints are there and attempting to comply with them. In fact what he is saying is that cabinet will decide what the constitution says for the purposes of today and tomorrow and he or she who wins power in the lower house can decide what the constitution should say and everyone else should just accept it. Australian consumers run the risk that the cabinet of the day has got it wrong.

  The first and most important point I want to make in respect of this report is, namely, that the reaction of the Treasurer tells us something. It tells us that the Treasurer is under pressure and that he is a man who behaves badly when he is under pressure. He comes out on the attack rather than accepting responsibility, attacks rather than trying to find a resolution to the problem, believes the Senate should ignore what the constitutional restraints are on parliament and also believes the Senate should ignore the reasons why section 55 was structured as it was and just pass legislation as he wants.

  He is a man who when under pressure not only attacks anyone from the opposition or the Democrats, which is understandable in the political process, but also expects his colleagues and his mates to follow his tune at any time. They decided to tell the truth in the unanimous report of the committee by saying that there was no way but to decide that the Taxation (Deficit Reduction) Bill if passed in its present form would run the real risk of the High Court considering that it imposed a tax under section 55.

  Of course the rest follows. On the face of it we can see that if the bill imposes tax, it imposes a number of taxes and consequently it would be held to be invalid. What we learn about the Treasurer is that he is a pig-headed, stubborn man who wants his way on all occasions and when he does not get it he will not only have a go at anyone in sight but also swing the guns around on his own colleagues as well. That is a pretty disgraceful performance.

  The second point I want to make in respect of this matter is the Treasurer's attitude to the community at large. Mr Acting Deputy President, do you know that Australian consumers, taxpayers and the people in the gallery are paying higher prices now in the shops because the people who are selling them the goods anticipate that most, if not all, of these taxes will be validated? Obviously if these taxes are validated the retailers are going to have to pay the tax, if they have not already paid this tax on the goods that have come in. They have to cover their costs. The last wholesaler is charging the tax to what is presumably the retailer and then the retailer is putting up his or her prices to cover that cost.

  If any of these taxes are invalidated the Attorney-General has indicated, if we do not mind, that he understands that these taxes, if they are being collected now, are being collected invalidly. There is no power to collect these taxes. We have all heard the old saying `No taxation without representation'. That actually means something.

  This country is covered by the 1689 Bill of Rights which states that there is to be no taxation unless it is approved by parliament. We have allowed a practice to develop, which some have raised to the level of a convention, that once taxes are announced in the budget people will assume that they will become law and behave as though they are law. Of course this results in the sticky mess that the government has got itself into when it tries to introduce legislation by press release or budget. The government has to consider what happens when it all comes unstuck and people have paid these taxes in anticipation of the taxes being validated. Clearly some of these taxes are not going to be validated.

  What does that mean? It means that people who bought a bottle of wine that was delivered after this budget was brought down have paid more for the wine than they otherwise would. They have no right to get that tax back. They have no obligation to pay the tax. The obligation falls on the wholesaler.

  If the tax is not validated and the wholesaler does not have to give the tax to the government, the wholesaler will keep the tax he has collected and the people who have bought a bottle of wine since the budget have got two chances of getting a refund—Buckley's and none. That applies to every other tax that is at risk. That is the situation that we are faced with. This fiscal uncertainty has been created because of a Treasurer who decided that the best way to proceed was to bully the Senate and try to lock packages in so that the Senate had to take it all as a whole.

  Some members opposite might think that is smart, a good idea and politically and tactically sensible. But when the time comes, as it inevitably will, when the government is on the other side of this chamber, it will have a different view. When the time comes to answer to someone as to why government members bother to collect a salary if they are not prepared to do any more than simply rubber stamp what comes from downstairs, they might have some embarrassment. I would have some embarrassment taking my salary if I thought my only job was to sit in this chamber and say, `Yes sir, no sir' to whatever comes from the other place.

  We see day after day in this place examples of where the other place messes it up, where the people with the majority take no notice of detail, shove bills through with speed, guillotine 40 or 50 bills in a week and then send them to the Senate for us to clean up the mess. If the attitude being taken on the other side is that it is all okay and the Treasurer wants it done this way and they want to be able to blackmail the Senate into all or nothing at all, then the people who are paying for the salaries of senators are wasting their money.

  Mr Acting Deputy President, you may as well have the sack. We can send the Deputy Clerk somewhere else because she will not be needed. No-one else will be needed. We can get rid of half of this building that we have just spent over a billion dollars on, throw it all down the drain and go to a unicameral system.

  The attitude is that we should give the government of the day that is elected on the cyclical fortunes of public will a complete carte blanche. I mean no disrespect to Mr Acting Deputy President because he is from the opposition party in Queensland, but my view is that there is no better example of the problems that a parliament can get into with a unicameral system than the state of Queensland. Anyone who wants to get rid of an upper house need only look there for the troubles that a parliament can get into when it does not have a second house to query what the executive is doing—there is no effective brake on the executive.

  So if Senator Chris Evans, Senator Cooney, Senator Bolkus and all government members think that the Senate is being obstructionist because it is doing its job, then they should give their preselections away and let someone else come in here who actually wants to do the job. We need a person who wants to do the job of reviewing what the executive of the day wants to do and who wants to have a real say and not just a token gesture of expressing a view and then leaving it up to the lower house to take any notice of it or not.

  Senator Evans is only new in this place and I am astounded that he could be looking over with a frown as if to say he does not understand what his job is.

Senator Chris Evans —I don't understand your argument; you were complimenting us a minute ago.

Senator VANSTONE —It does not surprise me that Senator Chris Evans does not understand the argument. For his benefit let me repeat my argument in a very simple and short form. The argument is that if one wants to simply accept what comes up from the lower house and have no say in the benefits or otherwise of it and if one wants to accept it irrespective of its constitutional propriety or otherwise, then the question is raised of why we bother having a Senate. It follows that those on the other side who simply think they should do what their colleagues in the lower house want them to do should give up their preselection. They have no business being in this place and accepting taxpayers money if they are not prepared to do the job.

  I will conclude by summarising the two points that I have sought to make, which obviously have had little success with Senator Chris Evans. First, what we have seen is that the Treasurer is a petulant little man who behaves very badly when he does not get what he wants. Instead of accepting responsibility and trying to find an acceptable way through the problems, he stands on his heels, stamps his foot and threatens to get out of this place because he does not think that he is getting a fair go.

  The Treasurer is a man who, when under pressure, attacks everybody else, including his colleagues and his mates. He expects his colleagues in this place to ignore the clear evidence that is put before them. He expects them not to flag a warning of the risks involved in legislation being packaged in a certain way, but wants them simply to toe the party line. I would say that means he expects them not to do their job, even though they are paid with taxpayers' money.

  After all, we get paid a significant amount of money. As I understand it, when one adds up the cost of the rest of the services in this place, including office accommodation, it costs pretty close to $400,000 a year to keep one person here. There are eight members of the committee and so it costs $3.2 million a year to keep those senators going. However, the Treasurer cannot understand why the Labor members of the committee could possibly have reached the conclusion that they did. He has nothing kind that he can say about them. That tells us something as to what he thinks about the Senate.

  The second aspect follows from the first. Having received this report, the Treasurer's total demeanour indicates that he would rather not have this place. He would rather be a little dictator who could simply say, `This is going to be the budget. It doesn't matter whether it is constitutional or not. We'll take that chance. Brave us, the government, and we'll take the chance'. That proposition neglects the very important fact that the taxpayers are the ones on whom that chance has a significant effect. If the Treasurer had his way to proceed as he wished, the taxpayers are the ones who would be mucked up; they are the ones who are paying the higher prices; they are the ones who will have the fiscal nightmare; and they are the ones who will have the paperwork nightmare in seeking to resolve and unravel the problem.

  I might have heard Senator Chris Evans incorrectly, but I thought he was interjecting that we could pass retrospective validating legislation.

Senator Chris Evans —Pass the legislation.

Senator VANSTONE —He might have been saying, `Pass this legislation'. If he was, he is caught by the same disease as that which afflicts the Treasurer. He is saying, `Don't worry about all those things, just pass the legislation'. As a member of the committee, Senator Chris Evans must understand that if we pass this legislation which, if challenged, is then held to be invalid, that does not solve the problem. The seal of approval from this place does not make something constitutional. That is why this committee was being asked to advise on the risk of treating this as legislation that would be held to be valid. That was the whole point of the inquiry. That is what I thought Senator Chris Evans understood.

Senator Chris Evans —Current tax bills.

Senator VANSTONE —He now interjects in terms of current tax bills. Well, that is not at all helpful to the insights we get from Mr Dawkins's response to the tax bill that he proposed in the first place. I would simply say that we did the right thing in proceeding to inquire as to whether they were constitutional. If that bill was not constitutional and it was passed, I feel that London to a brick it would be challenged; there was a real risk that it would be held to be invalid. There was another way to package the bills which would still give the government its way, but that constitutional and fiscal uncertainty would not have been inflicted on taxpayers who are now paying higher prices in the expectation of these taxes being validated.

  Last but not least, we have a test bill wheeled up to us. The government's idea is: `Why not vote for something that you think is unconstitutional because then we can get the High Court to test it?'. I am not at all certain that the problem has been solved when I look at the repackaging of these bills. I certainly hope that it has been solved but my deep suspicion is that it has not. If I am right, it will tell us that yet again the Treasurer in a determined way is seeking to lock the Senate into accepting a number of options at any one time in order to push the government's view through this place. This would not allow the Senate to operate as a proper house of review. That would a very sad thing not only for the legislative process but also for the Treasurer because, hopefully, if that is the case, those opposite would decide that his time has come, as mine has in this debate, and that he would have to go. (Time expired)