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Tuesday, 15 September 2015
Page: 6870

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:47): I rise to speak on the Tax and Superannuation Laws Amendment (2015 Measures No. 4) Bill 2015. The specific aspect of this bill that I want to deal with is that of the exemption of income earned in overseas employment. This looks like another unfair tax measure, where we have an inconsistency, and questions need to be answered by Labor, Liberals and Nationals about why they would support this inconsistency.

This measure really does penalise workers who work for the government on overseas aid projects. We are talking about people employed and paid for out of overseas development assistance. Under the current law all employees of an Australian government agency who work overseas for not fewer than 91 continuous days delivering ODA are exempted from payment of income tax on the income they earn while overseas. It might sound fair that we need to tidy that up, but that exemption is not being removed for all workers who are paid out of the government coffers.

The amendments ensure that all employees of an Australian government agency will be treated equally, in that they will now be subject to income tax on overseas income they have earned in the delivery of ODA. We are being told that there is an issue of fairness here and that there needs to be an evening out of the current system, but it is only to do with ODA. When you look into it more deeply, you find considerable discrimination. The change, which is in schedule 2 of the bill, means that overseas development assistance workers employed by the government will no longer be eligible for tax exemptions. We know this is discriminatory because tax exemptions are being retained for workers in private companies, the Australian Federal Police and the military. This is where we need an explanation, because the Greens certainly support consistency, but we need some fair consistency in how this works.

If workers in private NGOs, the Australian Federal Police and the military will retain their tax exemption status, why shouldn't all government employees do so? I have not been able to find anything in the explanatory memorandum to the bill or in the second reading speech to clarify this. What we find buried in this legislation is that it does penalise workers who choose to work for the government in delivering ODA. If they are working for the government delivering ODA project services, this provision will now apply to them, where it did not previously. This is where we have to look at this measure closely. It looks very discriminatory.

It is also relevant to consider the changes that have been made recently to overseas aid. We have seen a massive decrease in money—$11 billion—for overseas aid. Under this government we now have language about overseas aid having to be about the national interest—not the national interest in relieving poverty in low-income countries but Australia's national interest. I have looked at this issue closely for a long time. When one sees this measure, which discriminates against government workers employed under ODA but not against those in the private sector who are linked with aid, one has to ask questions. And those questions should be answered. As I say again, it looks very discriminatory. I did not hear any explanation as to why Labor signed off on this.

This measure is largely hidden. To be frank about it, we only came across it recently. Again I want to emphasise that the Greens support consistency in terms of tax measures—that is fair—but we are not getting consistency here. Although, when you look at how it is set out on page 25 of the explanatory memorandum, you would think that it was fair, because we are told:

These amendments ensure that all employees of an Australian government agency are treated equally …

Those are the first words—I read them out earlier. When you read on, you find that we are only talking about ODA; we are not talking about those measures applying to AFP officers and the military.

We will return to this in the committee stage of the bill. I do hope that we get a fuller explanation, because right now it seems that buried in this legislation is something that is unfair and discriminatory.