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Thursday, 8 March 2001
Page: 22815

Senator GREIG (12:30 PM) —The competent people in the Parliamentary Library have said in the Bills Digest on the Aircraft Noise Levy Collection Amendment Bill 2001:

On 21 February 2001 the Assistant Treasurer, Senator Rod Kemp, announced that an `administrative oversight' had been uncovered and that the Government would be introducing this Bill to fix it. He acknowledged that although an aircraft noise levy had been collected from jet aircraft operators landing at Sydney Airport since 1995, a Ministerial declaration that Sydney was a `leviable airport' had not been in place since 30 June 1996. Without such a declaration, collection of the levy is legally invalid.

In 1995, parliament passed the Airport Noise Levy Act and the Airport Noise Levy Collection Act. Briefly, the principal act empowers the minister to declare that a qualifying airport—that is, one where nearby buildings are forecast to exceed nominated levels of noise and where the Commonwealth is funding a noise amelioration program—is a leviable airport. The declaration is made by notice in the Commonwealth Gazette for a specific period. The rate of levy must be struck in a way that the money collected for an airport closely matches the amount expended on the noise amelioration program for that airport at any given time and that the relative incidence of the levy does not fall more heavily on one leviable airport when compared to another.

The levy imposed on jet aircraft landing at Kingsford Smith airport funds the Sydney Airport Noise Amelioration Program. According to Senator Kemp, the levy had raised $197 million as at 31 January this year and program expenditure had reached $347 million, enabling some 3,300 homes and more than 80 public buildings to be noise insulated. The Australian National Audit Office, the ANAO, reported that in 1998-99 the levy recovered some 62 per cent of the costs of the noise amelioration program at Sydney airport for that year. The Department of Transport and Regional Services, DTRS, has estimated that the levy will have paid for the noise amelioration program at Sydney airport by around 2005-06.

An obvious issue of concern to us today arising from this bill is principally the failure by the government to declare Sydney airport a leviable airport after 30 June 1996, putting at legal risk around $175 million in public money. Sydney airport was duly declared leviable in 1995 for a nine-month period ending on 30 June 1996. No subsequent declaration has been made. DTRS is generally responsible for the management and collection arrangements for the aircraft noise levy and, thus, for the principal act. However, the Treasury is fixed with specific responsibility for section 7 of the principal act, the one dealing with declarations of an airport as leviable. The Assistant Treasurer, Senator Kemp, called it `an administrative oversight within the Treasury' and said that `the Secretary to the Treasury has taken full responsibility for the matter'.

Clearly, to be effective, deeming or validating legislation of the kind exemplified in this bill must operate retrospectively. There is a common law presumption against treating legislation as retrospective where it is ambiguous whether the parliament intended it to so operate. But this principle should not be confused with the question of parliament's power to pass retrospective legislation. Where, as in the bill, parliament expresses a clear intention that legislation operates retrospectively, it will have that legal effect even if it adversely affects the rights of individuals and other entities. Legislation which affirms what was mistakenly understood to be the correct legal position, as this bill does, is generally seen as less prejudicial to individual liberties than acts which state a new legal proposition and then apply it to past conduct. The Democrats consider that the oversight the parliament is considering is regrettable and that retrospective legislation is required to remedy it. We recognise the need for this legislation and we support it.

On a local level, I want to acknowledge the considerable correspondence I have had from the City of Canning in my home state, particularly from suburbs such as Victoria Park, East Victoria Park and Queens Park, which have for some time been complaining about what they appear to be legitimately arguing are increased and more frequent noise levels arising from Perth airport, which is in the vicinity. As a parliament, we ought to be looking in the near future at some kind of amelioration program for that particular region. I do not have immediate solutions, but I indicate my intention to work with the City of Canning as best I can over coming months to see if something further can be done.

I want to pick up on a point made by Senator Sherry when he interestingly brought the GST into the debate. He made the point that America, as a modern nation, does not have a GST. He is quite right. But I think you need to be careful about making international comparisons of that kind. America does not, for example, have a national health scheme. It is not a country that I would like to live in. It is a country with extreme disparity between rich and poor. It is a country with pockets of extreme poverty and alienation, it has ongoing and frequent difficulties in race relations and it seems that every other day some kid is running around with a gun killing someone else. Australia is still a lucky country. We may not have the best tax system in the world, but I would much rather live here than in the US, and I would warn against comparisons of that kind.

To go back to the bill at hand, the Democrats will support it for the reasons I have outlined.