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Monday, 9 August 2021
Page: 4328


Senator KENEALLY (New South WalesDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (10:02): I rise to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. This bill, introduced by my colleague Senator Gallagher, forms another part of Labor's campaign to ensure that the actions of this government are subjected to the scrutiny that Australians expect and deserve but which this government tries so hard to shirk. This bill would improve accountability and transparency in government operations, specifically with regard to the granting of debt waivers and act of grace payments by the federal government.

Under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013—the PGPA Act—the government can provide discretionary financial assistance. This includes the finance minister waiving a debt owed to the Commonwealth, such as debts owed to the Australian Taxation Office or Centrelink. Debt waivers are granted where recovery of the debt would be inequitable or cause ongoing financial hardship, and where other debt treatment options, such as deferral of payment, are not appropriate. The act also provides the finance minister with the power to provide an act of grace payment to a person if they consider it appropriate to do so because of special circumstances. Like waivers of debt, the provision of an act of grace payment is discretionary. Each request is treated individually at the full discretion of the relevant decision-maker and does not create a precedent for future requests.

There is currently no mechanism for reporting to the public how many waivers of debt or act of grace payments have been made, what amount of debt has been waived, or what amount has been paid out in act of grace payments. This bill seeks to address this opacity and shine a light on an otherwise unscrutinised area of government discretion by requiring the Department of Finance to state in its annual report the number of waivers of debt granted and act of grace payments made, and the total dollar amount of debt waived and act of grace payments made. It would do so without infringing on the privacy of individuals and organisations. No names would be released. This is a simple and straightforward proposition to increase transparency and, through that, accountability.

The government knows this is good policy. Since Senator Gallagher began her call for reporting on these discretionary payments, the department suddenly started to release details on its website of the number of debt waivers and act of grace payments approved over five years. Labor will absolutely take credit for this increase in transparency. It has been our mission to hold this government to account. If this government needs to copy Labor policy, we will see that imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. But Labor wants the government to go further. A one-off drop of information is not enough. It is vitally important that mandatory reporting is enshrined in law, because transparency and accountability around the spending of taxpayers' money is always important, but even more so when decisions around granting payments or waiving debt are made in a totally discretionary fashion.

Of course, this isn't the only bill we have before this chamber that will improve accountability and transparency. Senator Gallagher also has an antirorting bill that's designed to increase the transparency around the awarding of funding from grants programs. We simply can't trust this government to award grants to those who are most deserving. Instead, this Liberal government is blatant in its rorting and pork-barrelling. It's quite simple really. Mr Morrison spends taxpayer money like it is Liberal Party money. How does the Prime Minister rort thee? Let me count the ways. First there were the sports rorts with the colour-coded spreadsheets, then the Safer Communities Fund rorts where political expediency outweighed community safety and then the Building Better Regions Fund rorts where once again the departmental recommendations were overruled. The most egregious of all—well, so far at least—has been the Commuter Car Park Fund rorts where $600 million of taxpayer money was handed out using a list by the Prime Minister entitled 'The top 20 marginal seats'.

Time and time again the Prime Minister has spent taxpayer money like it is Liberal Party money. At every stage the Prime Minister and his ministers have ducked, weaved and smugly avoided questions Australians deserve to have answered. That's why this bill calls for compulsory reporting. The Morrison government will not be honest and accountable unless we make them.

Another area the Prime Minister has tried to hide from the Australian people is the work of the national cabinet. We saw last week a decision from the Administrative Appeals Tribunal that finally acknowledged what we have all known for some time—that national cabinet is not a cabinet. Justice Richard White blew up Mr Morrison's fig leaf of an excuse to hide information from the Australian people. He found national cabinet documents were not eligible for a blanket exemption from freedom of information requests, because 'none of the subject documents are an official record of a committee of the cabinet'. This is very important in the context of the work of parliament and the work of the Senate in particular. The Morrison government has regularly failed to provide the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 information that is vital to understanding how it has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate is the house of review—it is our duty to the Australian people who elected us and it is what they expect—yet the Prime Minister, possibly knowing he would be found wanting, seems determined to hide. Even when ordered by the Senate to produce documents in the public interest the Morrison government has been flagrant in its disregard for the powers and responsibilities of the Senate and continues to avoid legitimate scrutiny.

The lack of transparency, accountability and, quite frankly, integrity has been breathtaking. In fact, the ever-growing list of scandals surrounding the Morrison government shows why Australia needs a powerful and independent anticorruption commission and why the Prime Minister and his colleagues will do everything they can to stop one from being established. The Liberals in particular deny that there is a problem, they make and list excuses and they have put forward a draft bill for a national integrity commission that's designed to be so weak, so secretive and so lacking in independence that, instead of exposing corruption, it would cover it up. Every state and territory in Australia has its own anticorruption commission, and Labor believes it is now long past time for a Commonwealth body to be established to tackle corruption in the federal Morrison government.

While we cannot yet make a national anticorruption commission a reality, what we can do is continue to argue for transparency and accountability measures, such as the one that Labor is proposing through this bill. Labor won't stop advocating for more transparency and for greater accountability, because we know the Prime Minister treats taxpayer money like it is Liberal Party money and because we know that the Prime Minister is not on your side.