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Monday, 9 August 2021
Page: 4330

Senator CHANDLER (Tasmania) (10:10): I rise today to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. I will limit my comments today to actually referring to the content of the bill at hand. I must admit, I'm not entirely sure Senator Keneally did so in her contribution. There was certainly a lot of hyperbole about a few different things in that contribution that I don't think were necessarily factually accurate or relevant to the bill that we have in front of us today.

The act of grace and debt waiver powers exist under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 to enable the resolution of matters that fall outside usual legislative frameworks, based on consideration of individual circumstances. These measures are intended to be exercised as a last resort, but they are incredibly important powers because they provide the flexibility for the Commonwealth to deal quickly and effectively with issues where special circumstances arise and where there is a moral but not necessarily a legal obligation to provide financial relief to an individual or to an entity. These powers are a necessary capability to respond to fast-moving events or unique individual circumstances where existing legislation may not be able to be used.

Over the last 18 months, almost two years, we've had many debates in this place about the unprecedented nature of everything that our country is experiencing at the moment: the COVID-19 health pandemic and the economic situation that followed from that. So, affording the government flexibility to be able to respond to these fast-changing events is incredibly important. Indeed, these powers were an important part of the government's response to COVID-19, enabling the waiver of certain levies in the fishing industry and the education sector at a time of economic strain. This type of assistance, which needs to be provided quickly, simply and efficiently, is a good example of why this framework is needed and is incorporated into the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act. Also, these powers were used by the coalition government to administer the waiving of Tasmania's historic housing debt in 2019, a policy decision which has provided the Tasmanian government with millions of extra dollars each year to spend on social and public housing. This is something that a number of my Tasmanian colleagues felt very strongly about, and we are certainly watching very closely what the state government is doing in this regard to ensure that Tasmania does have the social housing requirements that it needs.

In considering Senator Gallagher's private senators' bill today, it's important to note that there is already a robust system in place for the exercise of these powers. I note that Senator Keneally referenced in her contribution, in the part of it that was relevant to the bill, that the Department of Finance is providing this information. The department is consulting with applicants and impacted Commonwealth agencies to ensure that decision-makers have all the relevant information in considering each claim. Further, Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Rule 2014 stipulates that, before making an authorisation for waivers, set-offs or act of grace payments under the act for any amount over half a million dollars, the finance minister must establish an advisory committee consisting of the secretary of the infrastructure department, the finance secretary and the accountable authority of the Commonwealth entity to which the authorisation relates. That's an appropriate measure to ensure that those authorisations are being considered by senior public servants, to ensure that they are for an appropriate purpose, before any such payment is authorised.

The government agrees that there is merit in the public disclosure of some data where individual payments will not be identifiable and has taken steps to ensure that there is transparency around these payments. The drafting of this private senator's bill acknowledges that it would not necessarily be appropriate for full individualised details of recipients to be released. I will quote from the explanatory memorandum to the bill:

The bill would require 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. There would be no personal information reported, given all that is sought is the publication of global figures.

That understanding of the need for confidentiality and protection of privacy is reflected in the approach which the government is already taking to facilitate transparency in relation to these payments.

Last year, the government commenced disclosure of annual and five-year aggregate data in relation to act of grace payments and debt waivers under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, covering the 2019-20 financial year and the four years preceding that. There was a sufficient number of payments in all of those five years to avoid any concern about privacy. Obviously there was a sufficient amount of data such that it could be published without being necessarily identifiable. Therefore, that data was published in the second half of last year on the Department of Finance's website.

The government's approach allows flexibility, when the total in a given year is elevated, to add notes about significant one-off decisions that are already public knowledge. In regard to the 2019-20 data, the Finance report explains that the annual total was historically high, due to the waiver of GST debts relating to school funding; the reimbursement of certain education and training fees and charges; the waiver of the Tasmanian government's housing-related loans, which I referenced earlier in my contribution here; and the reimbursement of commercial fishing levies.

A large proportion of these discretionary payments are to individuals, small businesses or small organisations. Sometimes the value of a payment can pertain to sensitive information, such as the value of lost income. In some years there can be very few discretionary payments, and a risk can, therefore, arise if the value of an individual payment could be deduced.

This bill creates some risk in some years, where there are a small number of matters authorised, that the reporting mechanisms, as proposed by this bill, could identify the amount payable to a particular claimant. There are no safeguards in the proposed bill to protect against this possibility. Of course, the framework that exists around the waiver of debt and act of grace payments needs to have an element of transparency around it, but that transparency shouldn't come at the cost of easily identifiable personal information being made public in circumstances where that wouldn't be appropriate.

In addition to the reporting which is already taking place, the Department of Finance is in the process of revising the resource management guide. I'm advised that it provides direction to the Public Service about the annual reporting of aggregate data on discretionary payments. The government has also directed the Department of Finance to consult other agencies about the data they collect on a third category of discretionary decisions related to set-offs. The set-off decisions involve offsets between debts and amounts payable to persons seeking waivers, essentially garnishing payments to reduce debts.

Although set-off decisions are made very regularly by delegates in government departments, this private senator's bill from Senator Gallagher doesn't establish a mechanism for reporting those payments, as it does for debt waivers and act of grace payments. It would seem to be an oversight to establish a scheme mandating a particular format of reporting around two categories of payment while not requiring the reporting of offset payments as well. So that is another gap within the proposed bill that Senator Gallagher has in the chamber today.

The government strongly believes in transparency in government operations, and, as I've outlined here today, there are already a number of mechanisms in place to ensure that there is transparency around the government's waiver of debt and act of grace payments. That's why the government has already commenced regular annual publishing of data on act of grace payments and debt waivers on the website of the Department of Finance, as I have outlined here today. This is now being reported on an ongoing basis, and these reports include more information than Senator Gallagher proposes in her bill and highlight some significant decisions that, where it would not infringe on privacy considerations, are already in the public domain. I think that that is the important point we have to take note of here: of course we want government decision-making to be transparent, but that cannot come at the expense of the privacy of individuals, or indeed entities, where it may not necessarily be appropriate for that information to be made public.

While I appreciate the intent of the bill that we are debating here today, as brought to the Senate by Senator Gallagher, the government, as I've said, already has processes in place to ensure transparency around waiver of debt and act of grace payments where it is deemed appropriate.