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Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Page: 7705


Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (18:45): Before I go to my more formal remarks I will just make a few comments on that contribution we had from Senator Edwards. Those three-word slogans that they are full of: we have had a gutful of them across the country for far too long. We are supposed to be entering a new and enlightened age under the great messiah, the new leader of the government. Now we have this new three-word slogan, the 'politics of envy'. What a con! What a con he is attempting there. What we are talking about here is the politics of fairness—

Senator Edwards: What rot! You are calling everybody crooks!

Senator O'NEILL: It is something that those on the other side simply do not seem to understand. There is nothing envious about a community wanting to have quality infrastructure, such as a hospital to which they can go when they are sick. There is nothing envious about a community seeking investment in infrastructure so that they can move around freely, have successful businesses, do business and trade, grow jobs, grow our economy and then go home to their family in a reasonable time. There is nothing envious about that. It is about a call for fairness and a fair distribution of opportunity for every single Australian.

But what we see on the other side there is a group of people who are happy to pull down the shutters, to do little deals on the inside with their insider mates, to prop up their own perverted sense of advantage and to shut out the rest of Australia. All of the other workers and all of the other businesses—small, medium and large—do the right thing. They pay a fair share of tax and make a contribution to the country, which is a very significant thing. Those opposite just do not want people who are making an awful lot of money to have to reveal anything of the truth of their earnings to this country and pay their fair share.

Then we have the other fake argument—the 'privacy' argument, that people who earn that much money should be entitled to their privacy. People who are earning $30,000 in the seat of Robertson on the Central Coast could say they need to be able to have their privacy, too, and that the Taxation Office should not look into their affairs. The reality is—

Senator Edwards: Why do you hate wealthy people who pay a lot of tax?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Lines ): The senator has the right to be heard in silence!

Senator O'NEILL: Thank you very much, Madam Acting Deputy President. I will actually put on the record how difficult it was for me to exercise personal discipline—to sit there and listen to the nonsense that I heard spewing forth for 20 minutes. There was no substance to it. It was just a recitation of a few lines that I expect we are going to hear over and over—the speaking notes that they have been given. Anybody who actually cared about this country and anybody who actually believed in fairness would never stand up and make the speech that Senator Edwards has just made. His is a politics of advantage for the few at the cost of the very many.

The argument about privacy is just a load of nonsense. People who make an awful lot of money generally show up on the BRW Rich List. It is not a secret, and they are probably not living in a very modest way either; I am sure that there are a few accoutrements of gathering wealth. And there is nothing wrong with that, but the argument is that you should have privacy because you are wealthy! Privacy for the wealthy and scrutiny for the poor—that is not the sort of country we live in and that is not what Australians think. If it is good enough for the workers who take home a very small pay, if it is good enough for the small businesses who might turn over $2 million or $3 million a year and pay their workers a fair and decent wage—a safe wage—in accordance with the law and if it is good enough for small businesses to fill in their BAS statements every four months, ever since John Howard made that a growth industry, it is good enough for those who have lots and lots of money to probably pay somebody to do it for them.

It is about fairness, it is about equity and it is about a level playing field for every Australian. That is the kind of Australia I believe in. That is the kind of party Labor is, because we stand up for those values and those principles. We will always stand up for fairness. We do that because we need to have a fair and equitable taxation system where everybody puts in their bit relative to what they can pay, because with that money we can plan for a great future for this nation. We can plan a great future for the children who are born into excessively, exceedingly and wonderfully wealthy families, and a great future for children who were not so—I do not know if I want to call it 'lucky', but those who did not land with those parents. Children of talent and capacity—whether they are creative, whether they are going to be our engineers or our science graduates, or our musicians, dancers and storytellers, or our carers, teachers, mechanics and plumbers—whatever they are going to be, they need to get a great education. That is what the tax dollars that Australians put in build for Australia. That is what we do; we make that happen. But this lot—this government—are committed to making this an unequal, unfair country, and this piece of legislation characterises that attitude.

Let us just go over a few of the facts with regard to this bill that is before us—the Taxation and Superannuation Laws Amendment (Better Targeting the Income Tax Transparency Laws) Bill 2015. The title itself just leaves me weak at the knees with its gross misrepresentation. It is hardly 'better targeting'; it is about getting a particular group off the radar.

The reality is that in 2013 it was Labor that passed legislation that required the tax commissioner to publish the taxable income of, and the income tax payable by, all companies who had an annual turnover of $100 million or more. They might not be listed companies but they are doing a fair bit of business in Australia; there is no reason they should not be subject to scrutiny in the way that any pay-as-you-go earner is. Senators will remember that we did achieve the passage of that legislation and that degree of scrutiny, against a background of incredibly fierce and unrelenting opposition from the coalition, who were then in opposition and are now in government. Labor's aim then remains our aim today—to ensure that some of Australia's largest multinational corporations and companies pay their fair share of tax.

The current system covers about 2,000 of Australia's largest companies. The bill before us seeks to ransack and emasculate the legislation by removing Australian owned private companies from the disclosure of taxpayer information. Currently, such companies make up almost 50 per cent of those affected. The government have a shameful reputation for stifling transparency, and this is but one more example of that. Labor's position, in contrast, could not be clearer. By moving ahead with their irrational plan to gut Labor's tax transparency laws, the government have illustrated yet again how little they care about the fact that too many large corporations simply do not pay a fair and reasonable rate of tax. I refer to paragraph 1.3 in the dissenting report put forward by the hardworking senators who advanced this for us:

1.3 The ATO gave evidence during this inquiry that one in five private companies earning over $100 million do not pay any tax. This government should be making scrutiny of large Australian private companies a higher priority.

They are making it a high priority all right—they are making it a high priority to get them off the radar so they are never subject to any sort of scrutiny at all.

When I look around the community that I live and work in and I see small business people who work hard and create jobs in my community, when I see students that I taught who are now running businesses and bringing up their own children in that community, I know they are working and contributing and paying a fair share of tax. Not one of the people that I know would be in a position to say that they are not paying any tax. This is the fact. That is why the piece of legislation that Labor introduced was so important and why what this government is trying to do with this legislation—the emasculation of it—is so shameful.

Of course, there are many firms, ethical businesses, that have a view to the future, that are sustainable and that will understand reputational damage from doing the wrong thing. Those that do the wrong thing can run but they cannot hide. In the end they will be picked up. Good companies that believe in doing the right thing, that grow jobs, are a part of this nation. But we are not talking about them. They are not the ones who will be upset about the legislation as it exists. This is a cover for companies who are doing the wrong thing, who are hiding profits, who are doing whatever they can to avoid paying their fair share of tax, to a point where they are not paying any tax at all. That is who this government wants to unleash. That is what this bill is about. It has lots of words, lots of pages, lots of terms that are appropriate for a parliament. In a nutshell, this is about letting off people who do not pay any tax, who do not want to pay any tax, and making it possible for them to do that shameful thing. Of course there are firms who do pay, but it is equally clear that some do not. We know this to be true.

At the hearing into the tax transparency amendment bill, evidence was given that, in 2014, 22 per cent of privately owned companies with revenue in excess of $100 million paid no tax. It is simply unfair, unconscionable and unacceptable, and the wider community have a right to express their real and legitimate concern. Unlike this government, Labor believes in more transparency, not cover-ups. The current tax transparency law helps hold firms accountable. In contrast, what is crystal clear is that this government denies public scrutiny and believes in hiding from the Australian public information about how much these companies actually pay.

Time and time again we have heard the same tired, cliche-ridden rhetoric from the government about their commitment to tackling multinational tax avoidance, when this legislation does exactly the opposite by ensuring there is less transparency, not more. They say to the Australian people, 'We'll make sure these big multinational companies that get featured on programs over a period of time pay their fair share,' and then, when they think no-one is looking, when they think they are really smart and they can pull the wool over the eyes of the Australian population, they put forward a piece of legislation like this and whip away any scrutiny. Put this alongside their decision to reopen offshore loopholes, which is worth $1.1 billion, and you have a pretty clear road map of where the government's taxation priorities lie. It is not with fairness and it is not with the expectations of the Australian population; it is with their top-end-of-town mates and with people who do not want scrutiny, who think they are above and beyond.

What is so insidious about this legislation is the way in which the government has struggled to justify why it might be necessary. I did make commentary particularly on Senator Edwards's presentation here this afternoon. Some of the explanations presented in defence of this legislation are facile and risible, containing not a single shred of evidence to support them, but are an absolute revelation of ideology, of advantaging the few, of keeping their rich mates out of the Australian taxation system. For example, suggestions that publishing the information would represent a security risk—which is one of the arguments I have heard—have been absolutely rebutted not only by common sense amongst Australians but by the Australian Federal Police, who think it is a joke, by the Australian Taxation Office, by Treasury and, indeed, by the Attorney-General's own office. So any claim of security risks around making these wealthy individuals subject to scrutiny is simply a misrepresentation of reality.

What evidence is there to suggest that out there in the community people are writing to their MPs and demonstrating their outrage at the idea that some of the largest multinational corporations should actually be open and transparent about the amount of tax they pay? I have not had any letters telling me that they want less scrutiny. I am waiting for the campaign. I do not think GetUp! are going to run it. I cannot see thousands of emails coming across my desk saying, 'Give those multinational corporations a break. Let them loose. They've been doing it too hard. They have not been paying any tax for so long now. We really have to look after them; they are stressed.' I do not expect that sort of a campaign. I certainly have not received one so far.

While we might joke about how ridiculous the proposition is that underpins this bill, it is really a very serious issue. A fair, competitive and sustainable taxation system is absolutely vital for the future prosperity of this nation. Tax avoidance weakens and impoverishes our society. It exacerbates inequality. It is unfair. It is unacceptable. Yet it is being given support by those opposite and this piece of legislation. This is a very live issue of immediate concern to the millions of Australians and their families who pay their own taxes and then rely upon the revenue raised through them to fund schools, to fund hospitals, to fund pensions and support people, to provide great infrastructure and to build and sustain communities in a myriad of ways. It takes money to buy things that matter for our community.

Just last week I was able to go to the Cancer Centre on the Central Coast at Gosford Hospital. When I was saying 'I was able to go to', I am glad that I do not have to go there to seek treatment. But, frankly, the hoops that I had to jump through with the New South Wales government to be actually allowed to go into that place are a little bit interesting. There is no openness; it is about keep out of the hospital people they do not want there. It is about controlling the environment, just like those opposite are trying to do for their mates—control the environment so their mates do not have to pay tax. Nonetheless, I was at one of the 26 regional hospital cancer centres that were delivered by the last government, the Labor government. We saw inequality across this country in terms of health outcomes, and the taxation dollars of good hardworking Australians went across this nation to make equitable access to healthcare possible for people and their families suffering illness.

These multinational companies that are earning these enormous amounts of money and do not want scrutiny might be able to afford to pay for their treatment in different places, but for most Australians access to a public hospital and access to a cancer centre when they need it is their only option. They are never going to be able to buy a wing and set it up off the side of a private hospital. They are going to need a public health system. That is what they get when people pay a fair amount of tax. It makes the building of our nation possible. It makes access and equity possible. But this legislation is anti-equity. This is anti-access. This is anti-Australian. It offends every value that decent hardworking Australians own.

I do not divide business and workers. Workers work in businesses and businesses that are ethical employers are sustainable businesses and workers come and they own those businesses. That is exactly how it is happening in the regions right around this country. Good people who pay their fair share are the ones who are going to miss out if this government gets this piece of legislation through. There can be no logical reason that the government have introduced this legislation other than to look after their mates at the big end of town and to avoid the public backlash that would emerge if it was found out that some corporations pay almost no tax. That is what we are doing today: reminding people that some corporations pay almost no tax.

What makes this legislation even more galling to those of us on this side who are committed to openness and clarity on this issue is that it is being introduced at the very time that, as a consequence of two disastrous budgets, more and more Australians are struggling and finding it even harder—under this arrogant Liberal-National coalition—to make ends meet and to cope with the pressures of everyday life. School funding has been cut by $30 billion. Health has been cut by $57 billion. They cut and they cut, but they are happy to cut and run and leave a spot for their mates to bask in the sun in the glory of their millions and pay on tax. They will keep the rich making that money in an excessive and obscene way and take money from those who have the least.

Clearly there needs to be a balance struck between privacy and what is in the public interest, but this government is afraid of any scrutiny at all. It was Labor who, in 2013, in the Tax Laws Amendment (Countering Tax Avoidance and Multinational Profit Shifting) Bill, plugged loopholes in Australia's transfer pricing rules and anti-avoidance provisions. It was Labor that signed 28 bilateral information sharing agreements. In March this year Labor announced a package of measures that would result in $7.2 billion of tax coming to Australia during the course of the coming decade. This legislation would interrupt that. (Time expired)