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Monday, 17 June 1996
Page: 1593


Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)(3.06 p.m.) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Assistant Treasurer (Senator Short), to a question without notice asked by Senator Faulkner today, relating to taxation.

For the first time a minister in this government has used a new defence in question time. Senator Short now says that he refuses to answer any substantive question from the opposition on the basis that those questions are hypothetical. He now refuses to answer any question from the opposition on the basis that those questions are academic. Then, if that fails, he uses the new ploy that the questions are `out of date'.

Senator Short's performance in this chamber today, in an attempt to defend Mr Costello and the government's efforts last week at the Premiers Conference, was absolutely pathetic. I put to the Senate that the government's original proposal to introduce a wide ranging sales tax, the Costello sales tax, which was later revoked to apply to all vehicles, was an ill-judged, incompetent and an absolutely inept and unwarranted breach of trust from this government. It was a breach of trust with the state and territory governments and also with the electorate.

The government's performance, particularly Mr Costello's performance, was both dishonest and humiliating. Mr Costello did this without any consultation with the premiers. It was a crude and blatant breach of at least two coalition election promises. Mr Costello and the coalition had promised, `There'll be no new taxes and no increases in existing taxes under a coalition government.' Mr Costello also promised on 19 February:

The coalition's position on Commonwealth-state relations is quite clear. The premiers have requested a fixed percentage of revenue to facilitate better planning and give certainty. We'll negotiate this through COAG. The formula would have to be an average one. The formula to be adopted is one that will guarantee current services and be revenue neutral.

Both those promises were broken in Mr Costello's offer to the states. Then when Senator Short is asked a specific question about sales tax applying to privately plated vehicles—will departments be supplemented as they were for fringe benefits tax—Senator Short cannot answer.

Question after question, clear questions, were directed to the Assistant Treasurer, the minister in this chamber who represents the Treasurer and the Minister for Finance, and Senator Short did not have a clue. He was not up to the job of answering those questions. His performance was as bad as Mr Costello's performance last week.

Mr Costello's approach was characterised by smugness and arrogance the whole time. At least by the end of this hour of question time there was no smugness and arrogance about Senator Short. The smile had been wiped off Senator Short's face. What Mr Costello did single-handedly was turn the Premiers Conference into high farce and plummet Commonwealth-state relations in this country to historically the lowest level they have ever been. It ended in an ignominious backdown by Mr Costello and the Commonwealth. It was a comprehensive and humiliating failure for Mr Costello and the coalition government, which had backed him to the hilt on these measures.

We have never before seen such a chorus of criticism of the Commonwealth government as we saw on this occasion. This whole episode has been a debacle of enormous proportions. We saw an undisciplined and arrogant government. We saw ineptitude, incompetence and dishonesty from this Liberal government. (Time expired).