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Monday, 9 August 2021
Page: 4334


Senator SMALL (Western Australia) (10:30): Here we are: another day and another Labor stunt in the Senate. I note that today Senator Keneally managed to devote some seven minutes and 30 seconds to talking about matters completely unrelated to the important issues that my Senate colleague Senator Chandler raised. At the end of the day, the opposition's bill, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019, would amend the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013—which, as Senator Chisholm rightly pointed out, is in fact Labor legislation—to mandate the publication of certain information about act of grace payments and waivers of debt. Somehow that seems to have escaped those opposite, who would seek to see this enacted in legislation, given the amount of time they have devoted to extraneous other issues and political partisan hyperbole. Indeed, Senator Keneally, by my count, managed to devote some 24 seconds to wholesome reflection on the content of this bill rather than everything else.

Let's run through what we're actually talking about here, and that's requiring the Department of Finance to include, in its annual reports, details of decisions made under the PGPA Act that authorise act of grace payments and waive debts owed to the Commonwealth. I will grant, as Senator Chisholm rightly raised, that privacy and confidentiality concerns are significant, so the bill proposes that only the total number of matters authorised and the total value of those authorisations be disclosed.

The issue is twofold. First, you can turn to www.transparency.gov.au and find the most recently available details on both of these matters, and in certain years you will see a very large number of waivers, amounting to a considerable sum of money. As my colleague Senator Chandler rightly raised, in 2019-20 there were some 4,130 waivers of Commonwealth debts, amounting to a very considerable sum of money: $14.85 billion. Arguably, privacy and confidentiality can be protected in a significant sum and a significant number of applications like that. However, one only needs to turn back to 2015-16, when there were 63 applications and $1.9 million was waived, or 2016-17, when there were just 48 applications and $4.5 million was waived, to understand that the government's position here is in fact balanced and reasonable. We will protect the privacy and confidentiality of those Australians who, rightly, under the discretion afforded to the minister in this case, have a waiver of debt applied to their case.

Equally, where the government takes a very significant decision—such as the waiver of 2,726 historical GST debts related to schools funding, worth $14.682 billion, which was identified in the 2019-20 year and released in the 2019-20 annual report of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment—it reflects that this is a government that also upholds its responsibilities to the Australian people in terms of accountability and transparency. Indeed, also on www.transparency.gov.au, one can clearly see that the waiver of the Tasmanian government's housing related loans, worth $157.6 million, which was announced by the Minister for Housing and Assistant Treasurer, the Hon. Michael Sukkar MP, on 8 September, is included in the figures. The government also used that waiver power to provide COVID-19 assistance measures, including releasing 776 commercial fishers from paying their Commonwealth fishing levies for 2020, as my colleague Senator Chandler rightly pointed out and as Senator Duniam shepherded through this place. Immediately under that, though, the Department of Finance makes clear that:

In keeping with obligations under the Privacy Act 1988 and Finance's Privacy Policy—

which it helpfully provides the link to—

Finance is unable to comment on specific waiver of debt applications to protect the personal information of applicants.

When we turn to act of grace payments, under section 65(1) of the act the Minister for Finance may, on behalf of the Commonwealth, authorise such a payment where it is considered appropriate because of the special circumstances of the case.

Again, a very small number of applications and a small quantum of money does apply in some years, highlighting the risk of identifying information being placed onto the public record. For instance, in 2015-16, 59 waivers were approved; in 2016-17, 65; and in 2017-18, 57 applications, worth just $758,000, were approved. That is, I guess, not consistent with the case that we saw in 2019-20, where 1,860 applications, for the grand total of $45.3 million, were approved. That largely relates to the reimbursement of fees and charges paid by 1,259 education and training providers. What we see is that this is a matter sensibly managed by this government, upholding privacy and confidentiality concerns of Australians at the same time as being accountable and transparent.

The act of grace and debt waiver provisions under Labor's PGPA Act exist for a very important reason, and that's that the resolution of matters that fall outside the usual legislative frameworks must be based on a consideration of individual circumstances. So, whilst they are intended to be exercised as a last resort, they are important powers that enable the Commonwealth to be flexible, to be agile and to do the right thing where special circumstances arise and there is a moral but not necessarily a legal obligation to provide financial relief to a particular Australian. That is in keeping, I would contend, with the expectations of all Australians out there.

So, whilst these powers were an important part of the government's response to COVID-19, equally at times they are an important part of ensuring that unintended consequences of legislation do not adversely impact an individual Australian who finds themselves in a sticky situation. The Department of Finance consults broadly an confidentially with any such applicant as well as the impacted Commonwealth agencies to ensure that the decision-maker has all relevant information relating to such a claim. So, where these powers are exercised or intended to be exercised for an amount of more than $500,000, an advisory committee comprising public servants with the relevant expertise must provide independent advice to the Minister for Finance.

So the contention from those opposite that somehow this is a piece of legislation of their own making that doesn't adequately include safeguards to protect value for money for the taxpayer at the same time as upholding the privacy and confidentiality concerns of Australians is frankly baseless. I think that's why those opposite have spent so much time today talking about unrelated matters, where all that Senator Keneally could muster was 24 seconds of consideration on a half-baked bill.