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Monday, 9 August 2021
Page: 4332

Senator CHISHOLM (Queensland) (10:21): It's such an opportune time to be discussing this private senator's bill, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019, because so much of what we see going on within this government is, to borrow a phrase coined by one of the old rugby league commentators, 'deja vu all over again'. We see it with the car park rorts that have been exposed over the last couple of months, again by an Australian National Audit Office review, which are similar to what we went through with sports rorts. All these memories are coming back to me—about targeting of marginal seats, about spreadsheets that identified which electorates these projects were to go in. It shows how the government were prepared to use the money of taxpayers—mums and dads who pay their taxes, and families who do the right thing—for their own political gain.

The government talk about integrity and accountability, but all they do is talk. They talk about how they support an integrity commission. They've now been in government for almost eight years. They still haven't done anything about actually bringing one in. When Labor puts forward a sensible idea like this, they again can't bring themselves to support it. We see it time and time again. You have to ask yourself why. The answer is that they actually don't want to be held accountable for their actions. They don't want to admit responsibility when they do the wrong thing.

The performances last week from the minister responsible for the car park rorts and from the Prime Minister were nothing short of disgusting. The minister scurried away from the media as quickly as that marathon runner in Japan yesterday. The performance from the Prime Minister on Friday evening, when he tried to say that this was a great outcome for Australians, was nothing short of a disgrace. How he could stand there with a straight face and say that is completely remarkable to me. It is so disappointing that, at a time when Australians are losing faith in politics and in politicians doing the right thing, this government sets such a bad example. They won't admit to their political decision, to help them get through an election, to spend taxpayers' money in marginal seats, which is exactly what they did in sports rorts and exactly what they have done in car park rorts, and then they come into this chamber and do everything they can to oppose more accountability and the opportunity to show integrity in government.

The Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act was introduced by Labor in 2013, when Labor was last in government. It was a measure to replace the previous framework of legislation, some of which had been in place since the late 1990s. This legislation was designed to establish the processes and frameworks necessary for a modern public service. It is a key piece of legislation that underpins the financial framework and governance architecture of the Commonwealth. It is a strong Labor achievement, ensuring effective governance and Public Service accountability, from when we were last in government. All we are doing today is debating Labor's simple but important amendment bill, which would allow for improvements in accountability and transparency around the granting of debt waivers and act of grace payments by the federal government. The ability of the federal government to provide these forms of discretionary financial assistance arises from the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013. However, currently there is no mechanism for reporting to the public how many waivers of debt and/or act of grace payments have been made, what amount of debt has been waived or what amount has been paid in act of grace payments.

This bill that Labor has put forward 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 that all that is sought is the publication of the global figures across the country. These debts that can be waived under section 63 of the PGPA Act are debts from non-corporate Commonwealth entities—so this would mean debts owed to the ATO or Centrelink. The amount would also look at the act of grace payments allowed under section 65 of the PGPA Act. Ministers can make these payments to people under special circumstances. The issue, however, is that many of these decisions are not clearly defined in the act. There are a number of examples that the Department of Finance uses, but these are all discretionary and each request is treated individually.

Labor's proposal is very simple and a step to making sure that there is increased transparency and accountability of government decision-making. Labor's bill would require the Department of Finance to publish in its annual report the number of debt waivers made during the period that the annual report covers, the total dollar amount that was waived as a result of those debt waivers, the number of act of grace payments made during the period the annual report covers and the total dollar amount that was paid as a result of those act of grace payments. It is important to note that the Labor bill would ensure that, in doing this, they would respect the privacy of individuals and organisations that these payments were made to.

While this data exists, it has fallen to senators to ask for this information previously, through measures like Senate estimates, but there was never an automatic mechanism for this information to be published publicly. In fact, the government thinks that publishing this data can be a good idea and has taken up Labor's suggestion and has now published data on the Department of Finance website, including the last five years of figures. This information includes the number of debt waivers and act of grace payments approved and the total dollar value of those waivers and payments.

So, whilst it is positive that the government has taken Labor's suggestion about publishing this information, what Labor is proposing today is not unreasonable. It's simple and, with this government, it's critical to ensure transparency is always enshrined in legislation. It is a fundamental principle of government that all spending of scant taxpayer dollars is accountable and transparent both to the parliament and to the general public, who, indeed, pay these taxes. This is particularly the case given the government's record when we look at those examples of car park rorts and sports rorts when it comes to discretionary spending.

It is proposed that these payment details continue to be published, particularly as, since 2017, there has been a large increase in waivers of Commonwealth debts and in act of grace payments. In 2019-20, there were 4,130 waivers approved, up from 1,475 in 2018-19, totalling $14.682 billion in 2019-20. There were some historical changes, which was why the figures were higher. In 2019-20, there were 1,860 act of grace payments, totalling $45 million, up from $11 million the previous year. Again, this was higher from COVID. And—while we are not talking about the outright rorting of taxpayers' money when it comes to act of grace payments or debt waivers—when ministers are able to provide the level of discretionary financial assistance they can through these mechanisms, it is only right and fair that we increase transparency as a result.

These figures highlight the need for these amounts to be published annually, to be able to compare what has happened previously and what decisions are being made by government. At the end of the day, we've seen numerous examples of this government being opposed to scrutiny, and there has been an increasing pattern of rorting by this government. Without transparency, we may never know what this government is up to. We've seen it, as I've said, with sports rorts; we've seen it with car park rorts. This is something that is a modest measure but is looking to ensure that the government is held accountable for its track record. It's why Labor has been calling for a national integrity commission, and we'll legislate one that is retrospective. It is why Labor has also introduced an antirorting bill—a bill designed to increase transparency around the award of funding from grants programs. And this bill today is important because we need more transparency and more accountability, and we need to ensure that it is enshrined in law to make sure that this government is held accountable for it.